In 2007, Pseudolonewolf changed the very idea of what Flash RPGs could be with Mardek 2, a story-driven game that offered more than ten hours of turn-based combat and exploration in a pixel-art package inspired by RPG classics like the first Final Fantasy games. It's been nearly three years, but not only can fans of the series rejoice that Mardek 3 has finally been released, but there's also an unexpected bonus for fans and soon-to-be fans alike: a complete overhaul and rerelease of the first and second chapters as well. RPG addicts, don't make any plans for the next, oh, month or so, ok? The fantasy themed tale centers around Mardek, a hero who seemingly starts off the series with the modest hero-type ambition of rescuing a princess from a dragon, and winds up... well, you'll see.
Although you can start Mardek 3 without having played the other two, playing the other two first is recommended. The plot of Mardek 3 will make little sense to you if you haven't played them, and because the save files carry over to Mardek 3, you start out much buffer and with cooler stuff if you start from a Mardek 2 save file. As you progress through the games, you always have some immediate storyline quest whose completion will lead to another quest, such as saving some miners from a group of bandits. You can also find and complete sidequests, such as collecting metal for an inventor, and there are secret areas to unlock as well. Each game has an ultimate story arc which must be discovered, sought out and completed to end the game, and what's more, each game is only a chapter in the overarching story line of the entire series. Pseudolonewolf has said that he plans eight games in all.
The controls of the series have been changed for Mardek 3 and the rerelease of Mardek 1 and 2, but the basic concept of keyboard control remains the same, with a few minor exceptions in certain parts of the menu where you can use the mouse. Bear with me, it may seem difficult to remember all the options at first, but playing the game is the easiest way to learn, and you'll get used to it quickly. The [arrow] keys control movement: of your character on the map, selecting options and items within menu screens, selecting attacks within battle, etc. To choose or trigger most actions, the [x] key is used, and to cancel, skip or back out of things, the [z] key is used. (The game does have QWERTZ compatibility in the options for gamers with that keyboard layout; in that case, the [y] key takes on the functions of [z].) The [enter] key calls up the menu, with all the equipment, skills, and other fiddly min-maxing goodness.
Within battle, the combat is pure turn-based, with your party on the right and your enemies on the left. The enemies are listed by name at the top, along with a strip showing the current battle order so you know who's up next. When it's a character's turn, you can select from attacks, magical spells, and items, and then select a target. If you have a reaction equipped, a timing bar will show up and if you hit [x] within the highlighted area, you'll add a bonus of some kind. There are also defensive reactions that can be used while being attacked, and passive reactions which affect everything. All reactions and skills are learned from items and must be trained up in order to use them without that item equipped. Some of the really useful passive reactions can take up to a hundred battles to master.
Analysis: It's difficult to fully do justice to the storyline of this game without spoiling it all to hell for you, the player. Having had the good fortune to be in on the beta, I finished Mardek 3 before it was even released, and you can't believe how much I want to talk about [scene redacted] and how I screamed in real life when I found out that [plot twist redacted] and how I wanted to reach through my screen and beat the [censored] out of [name changed to protect the innocent]. Of course, if I just told you these spoilers, it wouldn't affect you like it did me, because with the sheer length of the gameplay in these stories (probably looking at more than 50 hours for all three, if you go for all the sidequests) you really get to know these characters. Telling you that [somebody important] is really [wouldn't you like to know?] can only hit you in the base of your spine if the game has suckered you into thinking [daisies and butterflies, tra la].
The game merrily dances across the fourth wall at times, especially to poke affectionate fun at conventions of the genre. The entire opening of Mardek 1 is a glorious send-up of over the top medieval fantasy. When you barge into someone's house to search for potions and stuff in typical heedless RPG fashion, don't be surprised if the people sitting in the house call you on it. NPCs frequently have snarky names such as "Sidequest Priest" and "Blatantly Evil Chancellor". However, this series isn't a parody. While it pokes fun at the absurdity of some genre conventions, it knows that these very conventions can be used to weave both a game that's fun to play and a story that can keep you on the edge of your seat. The world building is both wide and deep, especially in Mardek 3, which is much less linear. Like many games, Mardek features elemental rock-paper-scissors; here, air over earth over water over fire over air, light over dark over light, and aether. But in this world, there is an entire theory of personality that goes along with it. Don't neglect to check out bookshelves in homes and libraries to learn more about this and other aspects of the universe.
If you enjoy epic storytelling through pure turn-based combat, a game like Final Fantasy X where the fate of the world rests in your hands, and also where you can set the controller down mid-battle without pausing, go make yourself a sandwich, and come back to find everything just as you left it, you know that the number of games that can scratch that itch is rather low nowadays. The game genre does have some prominent critics, with Yahtzee Croshaw memorably comparing it to watching a DVD and stopping every few minutes to fiddle with the remote control. Haters go on and hate! I can't hear you through the layer of awesome. Now, excuse me, I've got to play through the entire series again for 100% completion. See you sometime in August.