Hello internet, I’m Andrew, I tend to use “Aridross” as my online handle, and I’m bad at introductions, so I’m gonna cut to the chase. I found Indie Hell Zone in January 2021, and one of the first articles that caught my eye was Dari’s end-of-an-era dedication to the Epic Battle Fantasy series. My first thoughts went to another RPG from the early flash era that deserves to be remembered, then I saw the “Now Accepting Pitches!” banner on the site, so I started typing a pitch. The game in question is MARDEK, a series of three RPGs created by Tobias Cornwall, known at the time by the internet handle ‘PseudoLoneWolf’. Mardek definitely wasn’t the first game I ever played, but it was almost certainly the first RPG series I played, so the series has a lot of sentimental value to me.
The real-world history of Mardek is significantly different from that of Epic Battle Fantasy, however, so let’s compare the start and end dates of these series to illustrate that. EBF1 was released in 2009; EBF5 was released in 2018 and received continual updates into 2020 and has an in-development mobile port. Mardek 1 and 2 were released in 2007; Mardek 3 was released in 2010, at which point the series, in that form, was discontinued for a variety of reasons.
The series gives an odd perception in that its forward-facing identity is focused on the series’ humor, which is an artifact of the developer’s age at the time. While there are some good jokes, there are plenty that are throwaway and crass. There are also attempts at satire of offensive ideas that falls on its face and just be offensive in itself. However, hidden underneath the jokes, there are plenty of serious moments that demonstrate a strong emotional depth. Throughout the years, Tobias has shared on various blogs that aside from feeling like he surpassed the quality of this work as a creator, he wasn’t particularly mentally healthy during this period. Between these two issues, Mardek in its original form is something Tobias has become increasingly disinterested in revisiting, let alone continuing, as a product of a time in his life that he’d rather not relive.
To fully disclose my own involvement with the series, I’m currently the lead writer and editor for a fan project to continue Mardek. Our goal is to pick the series up right where it left off and make five more games to fulfill the intended eight-game story arc. My own role and responsibility is to make sure we stay on that target. We have Tobias’s explicit permission to proceed, provided that we don’t monetize the project, we don’t get him involved, and we don’t cause any trouble for him. The project is entirely community-driven, and anyone with skills in coding, sprite art, music, writing, etc. is welcome to join and participate, or you can just jump in and playtest some things as they’re completed. I don’t have any significant social media presence (or any other published work), so my “Contact Me” link at the bottom of the article will just be a link to the project’s Discord server, where I’m always active responding to community questions and suggestions for the story. That’s all I’ve got for history and preamble, so let’s start talking about the series proper.
Mardek 1: “A Fallen Star”, opens with two ‘Mighty Heroes’, our titular protagonist Mardek and his friend Deugan, storming a castle inhabited by brutal Monsters and a fearsome Dragon to rescue a kidnapped princess. Now, if this all seems rather cliche, put a pin in that thought for a moment, we’ll come back to it after we get some mechanics out of the way.
As Deugan helpfully breaks the fourth wall to remind Mardek at the start of the game, this series’ primary gameplay distinction from other turn-based RPGs is Reaction Commands. Similar to the Timed Hits mechanic from Paper Mario and the other Mario (& Luigi) RPGs, pressing a certain button at a certain point in an attack/spellcasting animation will affect the outcome of the attack.
In the Mario RPGs, every different attack, both from the playable and enemy combatants, has a unique animation and reaction command timing, to add a bit of a learning process and skill curve to the game. In Mardek, there’s a single consistent timing for reaction commands across the entire series, no matter who’s doing what, with a moving bar on the bottom of the screen to show you when to hit the button. Mardek’s implementation of this system is different because instead of every different action having a different animation and timing, you can customize the outcome of successful reaction commands. The specific implementation of the system can be tedious, however, and this will become clear as we go.
Every character has a unique list of Action Skills representing the way they fight: Mardek is the healer but can deal some damage on the side, Deugan infuses his sword with magic to hit enemies really hard, and characters we meet as the series goes on will have other common JRPG gimmicks, like casting spells associated with the classical elements, or doing more damage to enemies with a fiendish nature.
The meat on these systemic bones comes from four categories of Reaction Skills (Physical Attack, Phys. Defense, and Magical Atk/Def) which add effects to your Action Skills when you time your hits correctly. Passive skills also exist, but are all just boring stat stuff, except for a few characters who have unique passives. Every character also has an “RP” stat based on their level, and similarly to Badges and Badge Points from Paper Mario, ‘equipping’ a Reaction Skill occupies a certain amount of a character’s RP. RP is tracked separately for each category, so if Deugan has 11 RP, he can equip 11 RP worth of Phys Attack skills, alongside 11 RP of Phys Defense skills, and the same for every category
There’s one more caveat to Mardek’s Skill system: Almost every skill in the series has to be found and learned before it can be used properly. Skills (of all six categories) are properties of equipment rather than characters, so a character can only use a skill if they’re wearing a piece of equipment with that skill attached to it. The SaGa series of RPGs has a similar system to this, which allows characters to gain skills from using the same weapon for a long period of time, but Mardek has one more twist on the idea: almost every skill has a “Mastery” stat attached to it. Every time a character uses an Action Skill, succeeds at the appropriate reaction while equipped with a Reaction Skill, or just survives a fight while equipped with a Passive Skill, they gain a Mastery point for that skill, and once a character has reached a set number of Mastery points for a certain skill, that character can use that skill at any time, even if they aren’t wearing an item that has the skill attached.
So, in summary, Mardek’s hit-timing mechanic ditches the need for the player to learn different reaction timings and minigames, as you might see in the Mario RPGs, and instead shifts the system into mechanical progression: find equipment with new skills, master those skills on one character, shuffle those items around so other characters can master those skills, and all the while you have to balance this against equipping items whose actual stats are helpful against your current challenge. This progression system has both an upside and a downside for the player experience: grinding is now practically mandatory to ensure that your characters have the best range of options available to them at the highest level of power, and shuffling equipment around based on mastery can turn into micromanagement. However, this grinding is broken up into smaller chunks with discrete goals like “Use Mardek’s Shield skill ten times to master it”, which may make that grind feel more rewarding to players than just the standard RPG grind for levels, money, or rare items.
Okay, you got all that? Good. There isn’t much else about Mardek that’s mechanically distinct from genre norms, now that we’ve got the Reaction System out of the way, but we’ll get to one more thing at the end of Chapter 1. For now, we’re still at the beginning of the series. Your foray into the Dragon’s Castle as these two Mighty Heroes is short, sweet, and generally isn’t going to be challenging if you were paying attention to Deugan’s tutorial or you’re experienced with the genre. The same will be true throughout the rest of the series, provided you figure out how to exploit the strengths of your party characters and the weaknesses of your enemies, and you keep your library of Skills up to date.
Now that you’ve saved the princess from the dragon, we get to the first major demonstration of the series’ genre-aware and character-introspective writing: This situation is all very cliche because Mardek and Deugan… aren’t actually Mighty Heroes. They’re two young boys playing pretend, imagining this princess-saving scenario based on the cliche stories they’ve heard about Mardek’s idol, a ‘Grand Adventurer’ called Social Fox. Now, it’s getting a bit late, so the boys go home for the night.
Unlike EBF, Mardek was a typical world-exploring RPG from the very beginning, although that world is suitably small in the first chapter, currently restricted to just the Standard JRPG Town of Goznor, and the “Heroes’ Den”, the abandoned house in the woods where Mardek and Deugan go to play pretend uninterrupted. There’s not much to say about this next stretch of the game, so I leave you with a standout line from Mardek’s conversation with his mother when he gets home:
Deugan wakes Mardek up the next day with the revelation that a star fell from the sky overnight and landed in the nearby woods. The story sees our young (significantly weaker) heroes explore the woods, fight some wild animals who give them trouble, do a fetch quest for the local inventor, and eventually make their way to the “Fallen Star” – a crashed alien spaceship which was found first by their stereotypical childhood bully, Mugbert. This crashed spaceship is also the moment it becomes clear that this is a Science Fantasy story, and even though the boys’ home planet, Belfan, is a medieval-era world of swords and sorcery, high technology and spacefaring vessels also exist in this universe alongside magic spells and heroic ideals.
Mugbert is the final boss of this chapter, and after sending him packing, the boys enter the spacecraft and find its dying pilot… who magically transfers his soul, in his moment of death, into Mardek’s body. To punctuate this significant shift in the apparent direction of the series, Rohoph is not a “recessive” soul, as is so often the case in fictional stories like this which involve soul transference. As a much older and more developed personality, Rohoph dominates Mardek’s headspace, and can effortlessly takes control of his body and begins expositing. Kinda.
The remainder of Chapter 1’s runtime is dominated by Rohoph’s blustering, and insisting that he shouldn’t exposit about who he is and how he came to crash on this planet. I’ll tell you now, for brevity, but he doesn’t reveal this in-game until Chapter 2: Rohoph is one of the seven leaders of an alien culture, the Annunaki, who discovered a strange and powerful item which he calls The Violet Crystal. This leadership council is called “The Governance de Magi”, and it will become clear as we go on that the pretentiousness of this faux-french title is perfectly appropriate for the dramatic personalities of the other councillors.
Exposure to The Violet Crystal slowly warped the minds of the various GdM members. Rohoph believed himself to be the only one unchanged, and he wasn’t liking the changes he saw in his compatriots, nor the way their leadership became tyrannical. He confronted the other governors about the Crystal, which led to him fleeing the planet in his tiny ship, only to crash on Belfan due to an unexpected gravitational phenomenon, where he was lucky enough that Mardek and Deugan stumbled upon him, providing a suitable host for his dying soul in the form of Mardek.
The Chapter ends on Rohoph saying “Dying is a bit traumatic so I’m going to hibernate for a few years, it’s going to be a while before I have any real presence and effect in your life”, and finally a stinger cutscene introducing us to the GdM themselves. The members have strong archetypal personalities due to the influence of the Violet Crystal, especially Moric, the council necromancer trying to track down Rohoph, setting him up as the villain of the next chapter.
Now, we can finally talk about one more mechanic that differentiates Mardek from other contemporary RPGs of its time: Save Transfer. At the end of each chapter, you can make a “For Next Chapter” save, which will transfer over all the skills your characters have learned, and any items you’ve placed in a secure transfer inventory, to the appropriate characters and inventory in the next chapter. This series is an odd case of indie titles implementing ideas that the mainstream had left by the wayside: Older W-RPG series like Wizardry commonly had variations on this sort of feature into the early 2000s, but Mass Effect 2 wouldn’t bring these features back into the mainstream until 2010, the same year Mardek 3 released. The Mardek series is a single contiguous story throughout its entire playtime, just split up into chunks of action (which seems like a powerful model for indie development, since releasing chunks like these as they’re each finished means you get eyes on your project faster), so using Save Transfer to carry over your mechanical progress from game to game is a vital QoL touch to make the series’ gameplay feel as contiguous as the story.
(In the Steam version of the series, the three games have been combined into a single package, so this process is entirely automated- the player can’t even see it happening. It was incredibly important in the old days, though, and can still be found in the Flash versions on websites like Kongregate.)
Mardek Chapter 2: “A New Hero”, also released in 2007, picks up several years later. Mardek and Deugan are now grown adults who’ve become royal guards, going out on their first official mission as the king’s envoys and enforcers. Rohoph, now a pretty well-established presence in the pair’s lives, exposits a bit about this potentially being the start of something new and interesting (although he worries that soon one of his fellow GdM members will arrive to pursue him), Deugan gives Mardek the customary reminder to equip his reactions, and we meet a small cast of new characters: Crass and brutish ‘bad boy’ Steele, kind but introverted Emela (whom Mardek and Deugan have a mutual crush on, and Steele has a decidedly more self-absorbed lust for), and Donovan and Sharla, closely-knit lifelong friends who function as a unit similarly to Mardek and Deugan.
An important note is that Steele casually drops several homophobic slurs in the opening sequence. Besides putting this aside as a warning that the writing isn’t afraid to have awful characters say and do awful things on-screen, it’s also another representation of the game’s age.
They head out on their first mission to foil a bandit occupation of the gem mines near Goznor. It’s here that the writing shows a bit more of its introspective side, as the characters philosophize on and off over whether it’s moral to do their jobs of killing the bandits to save the miners. This culminates in the choice to spare or kill a cowardly bandit named Gope who’s guarding the bandit leader but doesn’t want to fight you when you arrive. This is where the series settles into its overall philosophy on violence (violent action is immoral but you shouldn’t blame someone for acting in self-defense), but this isn’t a philosophy everyone believes, and the characters will continue to question the nature and morality of violence throughout the rest of the series.
Regardless of your choice, the end of this mission always plays out the same: Mardek and Deugan are joined by Steele and Emela for the first bossfight, against bandit leader Muriance, and decide not to kill him after you win. Steele, however, is opposed to that decision, and now the party needs to stop Steele from killing Muriance… which Emela does by casting a lightning bolt, apparently killing him. Well, we’re off to a great start as royal guards, aren’t we.
The next day, Mardek and Deugan are assigned a new mission: Investigate some strange occurrences in a nearby town, Canonia. Emela decides to come along, because she’s said previously that Canonia is her hometown… and really, because she needs to take her mind off killing Steele. Steele wasn’t a good person, and people aren’t likely to miss him, but killing him has really unsettled Emela.
This is the quest that Mardek’s party will follow through the rest of the game. They find that a monster called “The Lake Hag” which dwells in Lake Qur near Canonia, has been magically killing people who approach the lake by turning them to glass. However, killing the Hag doesn’t solve the problem or turn its victims back to normal; because it’s normally docile, something else is responsible for it acting up. The cast finds that the Shaman who normally protects and cares for the wildlife around Canonia has been turned into a zombie by someone whom she believes to be the Grim Reaper, and she’s the one who was riling up the Lake Hag.
Rohoph identifies the one that zombified her to be… Moric, the GdM necromancer teased in the Chapter 1 stinger. Moric has been quietly raising a zombie army on Belfan and is now hiding out in the unreasonably-large catacombs beneath Goznor. This is one of the primary strengths of the plot-writing in Mardek: the series does a good job at setting up future events.
In one of the series’ most important events, the party kills Moric in the catacombs and leaves… but Moric is an Annunaki like Roloph. He’s just as well-trained in transferring his soul into a new body as he is, and as it turns out, zombies are viable hosts for soul transference, so Moric picks the most important zombie in the catacombs. When the party wakes up the next day, they find that Moric has unleashed his zombie army on Canonia, hovering above it in his Battleship, a saucer-ship similar to Rohoph’s “Fallen Star”, but large enough to cast a shadow over the entire town from fifty feet above.
The party are able to board the ship to fight Moric, who’s inhabiting the body of Social Fox, the legendary adventurer Mardek idolized as a child referenced all the way back at the beginning. This act turns the second chapter into a story of a loss of innocence for Mardek, as he and Deugan are forced to cut down the hero they looked up to. To further cement Mardek’s cynical shift to the life of adult heroism, Deugan makes a heroic sacrifice to allow the rest of the party to escape from one of Moric’s minions while the ship self-destructs, dying as the falling ship crashes into Lake Qur.
Chapter 2 is a functional heroic tragedy on its own about the loss of innocence and consequences, but Mardek 3: “Keystones” is where the writing of the series really comes into its own as long-term consequences are made manifest and also where the series’ character writing reaches its zenith of depth and quality. Mardek was promoted to a Royal Knight after his heroism in the previous game, and the game begins a few years later, after Donovan and Sharla have also been promoted, so now they function as a new team. Their mission today is to explore the Temple of SOLAK, on the continent south of their own home, which is being overrun by monsters.
That adventure pans out with them adventuring into the Dark Temple, located far beneath the Temple of SOLAK… but along the way, they meet a strange man named Clavis who muses on the idea of ‘keystones’: ideas and structures that hold the world around them together. When they return home from the Dark Temple, the party receive a new mission: the classic JRPG adventure of gathering the planet’s Elemental Crystals. The adventure to collect these ‘keystones’ to the planet’s environmental balance, however, will prompt deeper questions about the motivations of not just the quest-giver, but the members of Mardek’s party as well, and especially Rohoph, who was not immune to the Violet Crystal’s effects as he believed he was.
Now, we’re approaching the end of the article (and the series), so we need to get into the offputting content- the artifacts of the creator’s juvenility, the time in which this was made, and ultimately, the reasons someone coming to this game in 2021 might not want to play it. I’ve saved this until now because the worst stuff appears in Chapter 3.
For one thing, the game is steeped in post 9/11 attitudes and bad attempts at criticizing it. It begins with the Warport, the means of traveling between the northern and southern continents in Chapter 3, where the “gag” is that these Warports operate with the same security-obsessed, terrorist-obsessed mindset of American airports in an early post-9-11 world. As far as gags go, though… that’s a setup with no payoff. It just sits there with no real commentary. It does not sit in isolation, however, because it’s relevant to the intent of the next issue.
Aeropolis, the city on the southern continent, is based on the loose Aladdin/Arabian-Nights interpretation of what the real-world Middle East was like during the middle ages. The locals all have brown skin (and occasionally written dialogue inflections) to match this inspiration… and most of them crack mean-spirited gags at, or outright discriminate due to, the fact that Mardek and his party are foreigners. I suspect this is meant to be an extension of the Warport gag, with the obviously Middle-Eastern city’s attitudes holding a mirror to the Islamophobia (and general fear of the Middle-East) in post-9-11 America by using “reverse-racism.” But even if it were an effective way to address the issue, it’s handled with the approximate subtlety of throwing a brick. Not throwing a brick at a window, either- throwing a brick at a face.
Furthermore, Vehrn, a party member from Chapter 2 who recurs in Chapter 3, is revealed to be racist, calling the Aeropolitans “darkies”, which vastly undermines whatever racial commentary Aeropolis had to offer. Vehrn is a Paladin, and this is an extension of the ongoing “lawful stupid” gag that Vehrn isn’t really a particularly good person despite the implications of his job. However, even if he’s clearly intended to be bad (much like Steele), people may still find it off-putting.
The last big issue with the Mardek series is Elwyen. In Chapter 2, during the Lake Hag quest that I glossed over, you meet a young girl named Elwyen, whose parents were turned to glass by the Lake Hag, which winds up being a formative experience for her coming into Chapter 3. Now a bubbly, ditzy 17-year-old who looks up to Mardek as a personal idol, Elwyen joins the party, and her schoolgirl crush on Mardek immediately becomes clear. Mardek, however, is something like 25 at this point, and their relationship is definitely going to be off-putting to some players, because Mardek doesn’t reject her advances. He doesn’t reciprocate, but he doesn’t deny. The real problem here is that nobody in the series takes a moment to say “isn’t this age gap weird?”, and the same goes for another pairing with an even larger age-gap that’s suggested in the same Chapter.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that the dynamics of their relationship is written well – and is something that would have been better off for a different couple. Elwyen advances on Mardek because losing her parents and growing up without them gave her a deep-seated anxiety both with being alone and with losing further loved ones; she developed an outgoing, bubbly personality to try to distance herself from her trauma, and she latches onto Mardek in particular because he’s both compassionate and capable enough that she doesn’t feel like she needs to worry about losing him. In her mindset, if she can make a connection with him and get together, she won’t have to worry about being alone again. Meanwhile, when Mardek lost Deugan in Chapter 2, he lost a friend who kept him grounded in reality and interested in the world around him. Mardek has just sort of been drifting through life since Chapter 2, acting generically heroic, but internally trying to shut out both his mind and his heart to avoid facing his crippling loneliness, so he humors Elwyen because he doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to say “No, I’m not up for this”, for any of the variety of reasons he wouldn’t be. This relationship is a well-written realization of Mardek and Elwyen’s conflicting character struggles, but at the bottom line, the game’s failure to recognize and acknowledge their age gap leaves it fundamentally flawed.
The saving grace of Mardek as a series, ten years later, is its character writing. The gameplay is strong, but its Reaction Command system can become tedious over time. The character writing in Mardek, though – outside of its jokey dialogue – is exceptional, and stands out to me even today as some of the most believable writing I’ve personally experienced, because the characters’ actions and beliefs are all firmly-rooted in their inner problems.
This comes across most clearly through one of my favorite elements of the series: Chapter 3’s Dreamstones. Dreamstones are collectible items scattered throughout the world that contain a brief vignette of a character’s inner thoughts, putting the series’ character writing front and center. Whose thoughts each Dreamstone contains, and when they’re being recorded, is implied solely through context clues and subject matter, so even when they elevate the subtext of the main story into a text all its own, this isn’t a loss, because the dreamstones have their own subtext, their own inferences necessary to make, and their own stories to tell that helps elevate the main story.
Finally, at the end of this long journey, let’s talk about what happened after Mardek was cancelled. Tobias spent a few years trying to write and develop Chapter 4, but abandoned the project as the toll it took on him became increasingly clear. He’d been developing a new setting for future projects on the side called ‘Alora Fane’, so in the end, he decided to try to make Mardek all over again, retelling the story with similar characters and core plot points in the Alora Fane universe, while ditching the baggage that made the series hard for him to approach.
This resulted in the Taming Dreams project, a series targeted at mobile devices that was cancelled after only three installments out of a planned twenty-something. Taming Dreams notably left behind all of the crass nature Tobias had outgrown, but was more ‘cerebral and abstract’ as a result, in Tobias’s words. In hindsight, he believes this is one of the reasons the project was unappealing to its market. Unfortunately, Taming Dreams is no longer offered for play or purchase on any platform.
Tobias moved on to other projects, including ‘Memody: Sindrel Song’, a music-ish game set in Alora Fane which dives headfirst into Tobias’ field of expertise: character writing, introspection on mental health and personal development that underlaid his projects as far back as the original Mardek trilogy. Memody released to a lack of critical reception on Steam, and is still available there, where the reviews overall depict the game as “hard to get into, but worth getting into”.
Eventually, Tobias returned to the original Mardek trilogy, and decided to release it on Steam in light of the Flashpocalypse. The series was released with a select few improvements, in a single package simply titled ‘MARDEK’, and according to sales data released on Tobias’s blog in late 2020, had sold just over 1500 units… compared to Memody selling just over 150 units at the same price. As far as Tobias is concerned, this is the end of his involvement with the original Mardek trilogy. The series is still available for free online, too, on websites like Kongregate which officially host the original files, if you’re willing to go out of your way to find one of the various services that cropped up to replace Flash in order to play it.
Tobias Cornwall’s personal website can be found at Alora Fane where an archive of some of these old projects (and others) can be found, as well as his personal blog. The blog chronicles his mental health, as well as the development process of Divine Dreams (and its prototype/demo/prequel Atonal Dreams – which currently has an early Steam page), a new reinterpretation of the original Mardek story, and his quest to make Divine Dreams a more commercially successful product than his previous work. I personally wish Tobias the best of luck in that journey, after giving me so many hours of enjoyment in my youth through Mardek.
As for the story of Mardek, however, this is where it ends, unless you want to hear the story of some plucky young amateur game devs who decided to continue the series. I’m not going to tell that story today, but you can find us at our Discord if you’re an old fan of Mardek who wants to join the community, if you want to offer some of your time and effort to the project, or if you just want to dive headfirst into the MARDEK community.