By Alec Meer on July 17th, 2009 at 3:07 pm.
Art-mod Radiator returns, and its (entirely standalone from the first part, worry not – but you do need HL2 Ep 2) second instalment is a dramatically different affair to the maudlin stargazing of the first episode, Polaris. It’s no less introspective, but if you’re the kind of chap who’s turned off by even a hint of navelgazing, consider this: it has explosions.
Handle With Care features the male character from Polaris, with no reference to the female protagonist of that first episode. His marriage – to a man, which casts new light on the events of Polaris – isn’t in the best of shape, so he and his partner are seeing a counsellor. You play as the partner, your perspective flitting between the mutually antagonistic therapy session and a sinister memory kingdom of your own mind’s creation.
This latter is science fictional, cheekily employing Combine assets and Half-Life-esque Game/Evaluation Over messages – essentially, depicting the character’s subconcious as a Big Brother oppressor, all machine-like and unsmilingly dictatorial. Your essential choice in Handle With Care is to either follow its orders and knowingly repress painful memories raised by the counselling session, or to resist and tackle those memories head-on.
Clever – that what is, ultimately, the right thing to do provokes visuals and noises that suggest it’s absolutely the wrong thing. Klaxons and crumbling masonry aren’t events you’d associate with positive occurences, after all. Creator Robert Yang is playing with you, subverting your sense of right and wrong – and in doing so evoking the broken moral compass that intense self-interest tends to bring about.
Less clever – this is achieved by either placing or destroying crates. It’s a neat enough metaphor for memory-organisation, especially on a visual level, but is perhaps repeated just a couple too many times, which risks dragging the acute sense of agonised deliberation into a degree of frustration. The pay-off (or, at least, one of them; as with Polaris, this has multiple endings) – is entirely worth it, though. Clearly I don’t wish to spoil it, but the phrase ‘personal apocalypse’ seems apt.
As a whole, I’m hugely impressed. It coolly provokes the intended bittersweet emotions, and without repeating any of Polaris’ tricks. I enjoyed the amping-up of the locations, but there’s a part of me that nonetheless wishes it had stuck to Polaris’ resolutely real-world, real-events setting, rather than treading an overtly metaphysical path expressed as a sci-fi setting with crate-stacking challenges. Not because I thought it did it badly – it didn’t. It does it successfully – but because Polaris’ resolutely buttoned-down approach was such a refreshing rarity, even if the nature of its challenging was mildly infuriating. More of that, please – playing the mundane through the fantasy-window that is videogaming.