Martha is Dead: Italy is Scary. Review on Linux (Proton)


It’s not every day that we get to play a game made in Italy! It’s true that most of the video games development is typically the business of further North in Europe (France, the UK, Germany, and Poland all have a huge industry), but there’s more and more development happening as well in the South. Mercury Steam in Spain has been pushing AAA games one after the other after their original hit Jericho and their collaboration with Konami (on the Castlevania reboot) and Nintendo (Metroid Fear). Now the studio behind Martha is Dead, LKA might as well kick off the same trend in Italy.

Martha is Dead is an adventure game where you play in first person the role of Giulia, an italian teenager, during WW2. As the war is raging in Europe, Giula’s family has decided to retreat in the countryside of Italy to stay safe. Your (Italian) mom is married to a German officer which makes for an interesting dynamic in these times of trouble. Giulia also has a twin sister called Martha. She looks just like you, but your personalities were never really the same.

At the beginning of the game you walk around the property, taking pictures of the woods, taking a stroll towards the river not too far from your house. This is when you notice something floating on the surface. Just a shadow at first… until you recognize with fright that it’s someone’s body. As you come closer, you realize that this is your twin sister, Martha. You are the first on the scene. As your Mom finds out what happened, she runs screaming and finds you on the sand next to Martha’s body. This is when you, Giulia, pretend be Martha - since you look just like her.

So, Martha is dead, but remains alive for everyone else around you. Turns out that you mom had always preferred Martha over you. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the course of your life for the better. The lie has begun, and now it’s up to you to uncover the circumstances leading to this tragedy.

As you go around the house for clues, you discover books, hints of undisclosed matters, traces of the past… Eavesdropping on your parents’s discussions, more questions arise, leading you to search for more information. There is a lot of introspection in the game. Giulia keeps a diary and diligently captures what she experiences as well as her emotions (narrated with full voice-over in Italian - although English seems to be available, what a shame it would be to use it!). There’s stories of your old home, of how your Nanny treated you and your sister, of the legend of la dama bianca (the white lady) haunting the lake and preying on young women. Was Martha murdered by a real person… or a ghost?

I saw some people describing Martha is Dead as a walking simulator. That’s a harsh description, even if there is some truth to it. Typically walking simulators feature empty places that you visit, with some kind of notes scattered all around to help you figure what occured. Martha is Dead has a lot more narration built into it, even if the action is somewhat limited to exploring places and completing tasks to move to the next part of the story. There are no real puzzles, mostly it’s about finding things and working with them in the right order (and there’s a clear list so you do not lose track). At some point, you need to take pictures, so you need to find the film, the tripod, and the camera before you can go and take pictures outside. To that effect, there is some kind of inventory but that’s really basic. You interact with objects by clicking on them, but not everything is interactive on screen. Most of the items are decorative, and the ones you can use are clearly marked on screen. There are also quite a few objects that are only there to provide some background story, such as newspapers, paintings, leading to more narration with voice-over.

Overall, I see Martha is Dead as a rather traditionnal adventure game, with little dialog, a strong focus on introspection and a penchant for horror in the middle of beautiful landscapes.

And there’s Giulia’s passion with photography, which sets it apart. It goes very far to simulate how a typical medium format camera actually works, and how the film development process works in a dark room. It’s awesome! Being versed in film photography myself, the attention to detail is great.

They have certainly simplified things a little, but they got all the steps right (inserting the film, setting it in position, framing the subject through the eye-piece, adjusting the focus, setting the exposure, before finally taking the picture). They kept it as meaningful as possible in the context of a game. Photos in the game are relevant to find proof, to make memories of things you care about… and to find out what happened in the past, by going through older negatives that were never developed.

The tragedy of Martha’s death makes your character experience various sorts of trauma, delusion, nightmares… that are very gory in nature. Very graphic. This game is not for anyone who’s sensitive to blood or extremely graphic details. Expect some cheap scares too (things appearing suddenly in the corner when you don’t expect it) but more importantly the atmosphere of some scenes can be very disturbing and upsetting, even for adults. You have been warned.

I really wanted to spend more time in the game, but I had to stop after a few hours (4~5). For a silly reason, really.

The performance is absolutely atrocious.

I’m talking about a few frames per second. At best.

Changing the graphics settings from Max to Medium or Low seems to have absolutely no effect. The first few hours in game were borderline acceptable, between 15 and 30 fps, and then it went downhill from there at some point. For reference, I tested it on two different machines, one with i5 9th gen CPU + Nvidia GTX1080 and another one with a GTX1660Ti, on two different distros (Arch and Solus). The game runs by default in DirectX11 but the performance was about the same on both systems, i.e. deplorable and unworthy of the hardware it ran on.

I have no idea what is causing it, but the performance problem are also reported on Windows by a horde of users, and everyone on ProtonDB as well. There’s a sticky post on the Steam community forums about performance, and the reports keep flowing in on a daily basis. The devs have released a few updates after launch that were supposed to improve performance a bit, but they had no visible effect. They used Unreal Engine, and there’s something very wrong going on - it’s as if the game was never optimized to run on anything less than a SLI pair of RTX3090 GPUs - and it’s not that impressive either to begin with.

I tried everything, FSR from much lower resolutions, changing the rendering engine from DX11 to DX12, reinstalling the game, running the game with various Proton versions (Experimental and GE) nothing did it. I’m giving up. Sorry, but I can’t be bothered to play at 3-5 fps anymore. No more slideshow. Proton may be at fault here, but the massive problems encountered by Windows gamers in terms of performance tell me it’s probably not just that.

Here’s an example of such reports. This user has a RTX3080. Note that there seems to be a common theme here, most users complaining about performance seem to have either integrated graphics or Nvidia GPUs. Maybe AMD users got lucky here somehow?

In any case… this is a huge shame. The narration, the execution are all very convincing, but is held back by this huge performance issue. At this stage this prevents me from recommending this game to anyone. I have not noticed any roadmap for a major performance upgrade so far. Are they working on it? Maybe. Is it a difficult problem to solve? Must be, as they really have no incentive to make their game perform so badly.

If they manage to fix it, I’d gladly brace myself to go back to the dark abyss of its world. Till then… Martha and her mysteries will have to wait.