I'd never heard of Mutant Chronicles before, but I quite liked the figures, whose cartoonish sculpts were perfectly suited to my limited painting abilities. So I looked into it a bit further... and was mildly astonished by what I found. Those of you who are already familiar with the Mutant Chronicles franchise should feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.
So: back in 1982, the Swedish RPG company Target Games produced a fantasy RPG called Drakar och Demoner, which I'd kinda heard of. In 1991 they published the famous Gnostic horror RPG Kult, which impressed me enormously when I read the English edition back in 1999 or thereabouts. What I hadn't known was that in 1984 they also released a Gamma World style post-apocalyptic RPG called Mutant, which morphed over the course of four editions into a dystopian post-apocalyptic horror SF RPG called Mutant Chronicles, which shared some setting elements with Kult, and was published in 1993. This game took off like a rocket, and was swiftly followed by the miniatures boardgames Siege of the Citadel (1993), Blood Berets (1993), and Fury of the Clansmen (1994), the collectable card games Doomtrooper (1995) and Dark Eden (1997), a computer game (Doom Troopers, 1995), and a miniatures wargame (Warzone, 1996). The success of Mutant Chronicles was so great that Target rebooted Drakar och Demoner in 1994, giving it a more fantasy-horror themed setting to match the Mutant Chronicles tone, and in 1997 launched a tie-in fantasy miniatures wargame, Chronopia.
Here's the pitch: megacorporations take over the world. Then they colonise the solar system. Then they strip-mine Earth of all its resources, evacuate everyone they think will be useful, and leave everyone else to choke in the smog. Then they accidentally awaken some Evil Space Demons who have escaped into their gameline from Kult. The demons take over all their computers and nearly kill everyone, but the corporations manage to shove them back inside their box with the help of some magical space Catholics called The Brotherhood. Then they spend hundreds of years fighting each other in a state of enforced technological stagnation, because everyone knows that computers are the tools of the Space Demons, while the poisoned ruins of Earth are gradually repopulated by an assortment of post-apocalyptic weirdos. Then the Space Demons break back out again, and a variety of ultra-macho ethnic stereotypes - Scottish berserkers, Japanese samurai, efficiency-obsessed Germans, and Americans in cowboy hats - must unite to save humanity from the mutant zombie horror-monsters of the Dark Legion.
|It all looks like this. All the time.|
For Paradox today, Mutant Chronicles probably seems like an embarrassing episode from their corporate adolescence. The games still have a fanbase, but subsequent efforts to revive them have been dogged by failure and misfortune. Excelsior Games relaunched Chronopia in 2002 and Warzone in 2004, but both games swiftly folded. Then Fantasy Flight Games tried to relaunch Warzone again in 2008 as a 'collectable miniatures game' featuring 54mm prepainted miniatures, which went down like a lead balloon. Prodos Games relaunched it again in 2013 as Warzone Resurrection, which stumbled along for a few years before getting mired in legal disputes and finally ceasing production for good in 2018. The 2008 Mutant Chronicles movie, which somehow featured both Ron Perlman (!) and John Malkovich (!!!), ended up with a rating of 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. Mophidius held a kickstarter in 2014 to launch a third edition of the RPG: the sourcebooks promised in the kickstarter were dutifully produced between 2015 and 2017, but the game seems to have been pretty much dead on arrival, and Mophidius is now selling off their remaining stock at steep discounts. A 2016 kickstarter for a 2nd edition of the Siege of the Citadel boardgame raised $600,000: it was supposed to ship in 2017, but has been plagued by fulfilment issues, and most backers still haven't received their games. And yet, despite these repeated disappointments, the franchise just refuses to die. It's as though Warhammer 40,000 had a weird little brother who was (a) undead and (b) Swedish.
Mutant Chronicles is supposedly set more than a thousand years in the future, but the truth is that this is a franchise in which it is forever 1996. It's absolutely crammed with everything that teenage boys thought was cool in the mid-1990s: ninjas, samurai, cyborgs, zombies, Scottish highlanders (Rob Roy and Braveheart came out in 1995), corporate assassins, spec. ops. commandos, mutants, giant swords, giant guns, holy warriors, Judge Dredd, the Terminator, John Rambo, and Mad Max. This is a world where everyone thinks it's totally reasonable to refer to your elite super-soldiers as Doomtroopers, and where the average pauldron is at least twice the size of its wearer's head. No-one could accuse it of being subtle, but I do understand the appeal: the sheer wild-eyed enthusiasm of it all is infectious. The fact that I actually was a teenage boy in 1996 probably also helps.
Huge chunks of Mutant Chronicles were clearly ripped off from 40K. The pivotal event in history of both settings is a duel between the magical messiah of the Space Catholics (Cardinal Durand / The Emperor) and the evil warlord of the Space Demons (Algeroth / Horus). In both, a space-age civilisation discovers cosmic evils that force them into a state of technological stagnation. Humanity's best hope against the space demons is an order of sacred warriors with Roman Catholic Gothic aesthetics and lots of power armour. The space demons are split into different factions, led by entities who embody the forces of corruption (Ilian / Slaanesh), destruction (Algeroth / Khorne), pestilence (Demnogonis / Nurgle), deceit (Semai / Tzeench), and insanity (Muawijhe / chaos in general). The settings are characerised by black-and-grey morality, and dominated by oppressive societies riddled with heretical cults that secretly serve the space demons. There are chainswords. There are mutants. And there are some truly enormous shoulderpads.
I feel that it would be somewhat hypocritical to complain about this, given the extent of 40K's own debts to earlier SF media like Nemesis the Warlock and Dune. But the similarities between the two also call attention to their differences. 40K, for better or worse, has changed a lot over the years: 40K in 1987 was very different to 40K in 1996, and hugely different to 40K in 2019. But Mutant Chronicles still seems to be as 90s-tastic today as it was back in the actual 1990s, still trading on memories of endless summer holidays spent listening to Slayer and reading 2000AD.
Like 40K, Mutant Chronicles trades heavily on the strength of its imagery. Does it make much sense for girls with chainswords and power-armoured dudes in Pickelhauben to team up against frothing Scottish Highlanders and WW1 trench infantry IN SPAAACE? Not really, but it sure looks cool when they do! It features a lot of good, iconic designs, especially of armoured infantry, and I'm sure that much of the franchise's longevity is based on the sheer affection that many old Warzone players clearly feel for their squads of Imperial Trenchers, or Venusian Rangers, or Lutheran Fusiliers. But while its range of imagery is wide, it isn't deep. It draws on many different sources of iconography - feudal Japan, WW1 Europe, the Vietnam War - but at the end of the day, it's still mostly just Macho Men and Macho Women with Guns. It's fun and vivid and pulpy, but everything feels a bit two-dimensional, with no attempt to present, say, the Mishima Mega-Corporation as anything other than a heap of early 1990s Japanese stereotypes, or the Dark Legion as anything more than a gibbering horde of space demons who want to murder everything just because they can. The sense that I sometimes get with the best 40K stuff - that all this really means something, and that what we're seeing is just the protruding edge of something far bigger and older and sadder - never really comes across, at least to me.
|Everyone just keep shooting, OK?|
They do look really awesome, though. And that turns out to be able to get you a really long way. Just not, it would seem, quite far enough.