Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Tech: Hades review


Supergiant Games's action-RPG rogue-lite Hades finally exited early access last month, and I've been noodling around the game on my Nintendo Switch. In Hades, you play as the rebellious son of the titular Lord of the Underworld, fighting an army of your father's minions in a hopeless bid to reach the surface. If you die, you are carried by the River Styx all the way back to the start, to be needled by Hades for your insouciance and to prepare for the next try.

In each run, you are aided by other gods, both Olympian and otherwise. Through repeated escape attempts, you'll gradually get stronger and also unlock more conversations with the gods, propelling the story forward in a manner that is most unusual in this genre. The artwork and voice acting for these bits are excellent, making each sideplot a neat little reward in its own right.

Repetition does set in, though, because there isn't enough variation in the enemies and environments to make one run substantially different from another in Hades. While there are plenty of weapons, boons, and trinkets to try, none of them fundamentally change the gameplay. After I reached the surface for the first time, I felt no need to get there 10 more times for the "true" ending.

Rating: 85/100

P.S. - I played on Nintendo Switch, and while the game ran fine for the most part, there were very rare framerate dips when things got frantic. I also found the handheld mode unusable, due to the small relative size of your character and the text on screen.

Guns: Quarantine Training

Due to current events, Shoot Straight's indoor range is almost always full on the weekends, so I haven't been able to shoot as often as I should. With all the lockdowns and ammo shortages, I feel like there are a lot of people out there in the same boat, so here are a few options for firearms training that don't require burning powder:

The Dry Fire Primer - Competition shooter and writer Annette Evans put together one of the best (and only) books on dry fire training out there, aptly titled The Dry Fire Primer. This is a comprehensive manual, covering everything from setting up your own dry fire "dojo" (no ammo allowed, natch), to constructing drills, to integrating live fire into your training. If you subscribe to the adage that "perfect practice makes perfect," this book is well worth a few bucks.

LaserLyte Laser Trainers - To be honest, I find some of LaserLyte's reactive target products to be a tad gimmicky, but their base laser training cartridges function well. Just chamber the training cartridge inside your favorite firearm, and it'll emit a momentary pulse of laser light every time the hammer falls. My friends and I set up an impromptu dry fire shooting range in a basement by hanging a target and painting it with the laser; we could see if we were jerking the trigger by how much "smear" was on the laser dot.

Thunder Ranch USB Training Archives - I have access to excellent training locally, but one of my bucket list items was always to visit Gunsite or Thunder Ranch to take a class. While that's obviously not in the cards right now, Thunder Ranch is still offering Clint Smith's digital courses on USB thumb drives. If you know anything about Clint Smith, you know what to expect - salty, no-BS advice with a health dose of l-o-g-i-c.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Books: The Homesman

I recently enjoyed The Homesman, a Western novel by Glendon Swarthout.  In the book, four wives have been driven insane by the travails of pioneer life. When none of their husbands volunteer to take them home to the East, the task falls to hardworking-but-plain spinster Mary Bee Cuddy and unscrupulous drifter George Briggs. Their odyssey takes them through ice storms, bandits, hostile native Americans, and con artists, but perhaps the greatest peril is the isolation and sorrow of the harsh frontier.

The Homesman takes a far more cynical view of the frontier than Swarthout's other big Western, The Shootist, which is probably why it took over two decades for the book to be adapted into a faithful but money-losing film by Tommy Lee Jones. Swarthout carefully researched 19th century life on the plains,  so there aren't many gunfights or wagon chases - just the West, in all its terrible desolation.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Miscellany: Surefire E1B Backup MV review

I've carried my fair share of cheapo Chinese-made flashlights, as well as some pricey domestic options (your Elzettas and Malkoffs), but I keep coming back to Surefire. Their torches tend to be hideously expensive and dimmer than the competition, but they strike a good balance between reliability, durability, and portability that's hard to find anywhere else.

Case in point - the Surefire E1B Backup MV. I know for a fact that this flashlight is incredibly tough; it survived a trip through a washing machine and dryer without being any worse for wear. And the E1B was only accidentally thrown in the laundry because it carries discretely in a back pocket with a sturdy two-way clip, despite the somewhat bulbous head.

The Backup uses Surefire's "MaxVision" beam, which puts out a flood or wall of light rather than throwing out a tight hotspot.  If you need to light something up at distance in the sticks, it's suboptimal, but the beam works well for lighting up a room, a dark parking garage, or a city alleyway. Output is rated at 400 lumens on high and 5 lumens on low. The light always defaults to high, and you select between the modes by tapping the tailswitch, with constant-on accessed by clicking in the switch.

Despite the tactical-sounding name, the E1B Backup is actually ill-suited for weaponlight work. The switch methodology makes it risky to use momentary, since if you pulse the light for less than 2 seconds in a fight you'll switch to the anemic low mode. Another drawback is that the tailswitch is not shrouded, which means the light cannot tailstand and can (rarely) get switched on in the pocket. As an EDC light, though, this is a good competitive option so long as you can swing the $140 asking price .

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Mulliga's 2020 Halloween Spectacular: Junji Ito Double Feature

Not even a seemingly endless global pandemic can cancel Halloween! As if 2020 wasn't scary enough, this year I am featuring my usual ghoulish assortment of posts.

Happy Halloween! Today, let's look at two surreal collections by Junji Ito, Japan's most prolific horror mangaka (to the point where people have to make lists of manga not created by him):

Fragments of Horror

Of the two anthologies, I liked Fragments of Horror better. While the book contains a few gonzo stories apparently designed for fans of Ito's intricate body horror artwork ("Futon" and "Dissection Girl"), there are also intricately-plotted supernatural stories like "Gentle Goodbye" and "Black Bird" that could easily be adapted into movies.

Venus in the Blindspot

The stories in Venus in the Blindspot are supposed to represent a "greatest hits" collection of Ito's short story work, but I found them a little hit and miss. My favorites are "The Enigma of Amigara Fault" and "The Licking Woman," mostly for their uncompromising refusal to explain themselves. Weird things happen in these stories and people die, but there's rarely a pat expository page about an ancient curse or spirit to wrap things up. 

Mulliga's 2020 Halloween Spectacular: Music to be Murdered By

Not even a seemingly endless global pandemic can cancel Halloween! As if 2020 wasn't scary enough, this year I am featuring my usual ghoulish assortment of posts.

Happy Halloween! Below are some recent additions to my enormous 25+ hour Spotify playlist, "Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest":

Vampire Chick, by Shawlin Supreme & the Kick Back Boys

There are lots of songs comparing a lover to a devil, monster, or the like, but only in the metaphorical sense. These songs generally don't make my playlist, but Vampire Chick takes it a step further by describing an encounter with a vamp that turns into an encounter with, well, a vamp. The funky groove doesn't hurt either.

NIGHTMARE, by Haylee Joe

Like many artists, California pop singer Haylee Joe wrote music in quarantine, recording in her bedroom and producing through Zoom sessions. My pick of her debut EP Norman Bates is this track, which throws in the creepy nursery rhyme from the Elm Street movies (One, Two, Freddy's Coming For You) for good measure.

Dead Heart Beat, by LVCRFT

LVCRFT's 2019 horror pop album, somewhat unimaginatively titled This is Halloween, was a big hit, and their follow-up album, definitely unimaginatively titled The Sequel, is more of the same. I like this track, which includes a spoken word cameo by the CryptKeeper himself, John Kassir.

Werewolf Delight, by DBone and the Remains

I heard about DBone and the Remains from the soundtrack of Netflix's recent Adam Sandler movie, Hubie Halloween.  I like how this track balances camp and danceability - it's the perfect thing to put on for trick or treaters or at a Halloween party. And yes, there is a wolf howl at the end.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Mulliga's 2020 Halloween Spectacular: Dusk

Not even a seemingly endless global pandemic can cancel Halloween! As if 2020 wasn't scary enough, this year I am featuring my usual ghoulish assortment of posts. Let's dive into one of the best retro FPSes out there, Dusk.

It's been a couple decades since I first fired up the nailgun in Quake, but that title's run-and-gun gameplay, killer soundtrack, and Lovecraftian horror themes were obviously huge influences on Dusk:

Developed by David Szymanski, Dusk pits you against an army of deranged cultists and misshapen monsters. There's no cover system, no RPG elements, and no regenerating health - just blue/red/yellow keys and a whole lot of bullets. It's breezy nonstop action, but perhaps a little on the easy side for an old hand like me.

Rating: 86/100

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Mulliga's 2020 Halloween Spectacular: Paimon-palooza

Not even a seemingly endless global pandemic can cancel Halloween! As if 2020 wasn't scary enough, this year I am featuring my usual ghoulish assortment of posts. Today's entry looks at two Paimon-themed movies...


Hereditary is one of those horror flicks that has a clear family tree (no pun intended). The basic plot - a young girl starts acting strangely after the death of her grandmother - recalls The Exorcist and The Omen, and the film's combination of family drama with the paranormal is not particularly original after a half dozen Conjuring and Insidious installments. Perhaps the biggest influence is Rosemary's Baby, in the way the story focuses on the mental breakdown of the protagonist mother played by Toni Collette.

Novelty aside, execution still counts for a lot, and Hereditary nails it. Collette is one of my favorite actresses because of the way she commits to material. Here, she's aided by some fine supporting performances (mild spoiler: Gabriel Byrne plays a straight man for once in a horror movie) and sharp directing from Ari Aster, in his debut (!) feature.

Rating: 8/10

Last Shift

As I said, execution counts for a lot in horror, and Last Shift shows what can happen when dedicated, well-intentioned filmmakers mishandle a familiar premise. In the movie, a rookie cop takes the last shift in a defunct police station, and before you can say "Assault on Precinct 13," spooky things start happening to her.

Is she being stalked from beyond the grave by sadistic serial killers? Is a nefarious otherworldly entity behind her torment? You won't care, because the tiresome, constant jump scares and meandering plot meant I was ready to turn this one off about 40 minutes in. It's a shame, because Juliana Harkavy does well playing the beleaguered officer, and everyone on the crew obviously worked hard.

Rating: 4/10

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Books: Oenophile Quadruple Feature

My managing partner is a wine connoisseur, so I've been reading up on all things viticulture to keep up. Here are some of the best wine-related books I've found: 

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

In this book, Tom Standage explains the surprising ways in which human civilization has been intertwined with 6 beverages, from beer in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, all the way to the 20th century march of Coca-Cola. It turns out that drinks like coffee and tea were not merely the products of world history, they also influenced history themselves (coffee fueled some of the Enlightenment's greatest thinkers, and demand for tea drove the Opium Wars, among other things). Wine is the second drink featured in the book, and wine's dual nature - as the favored libation for both hoity-toity Greek symposia and hedonistic Roman Bacchanalia - persists to this day.

The Road to Burgundy

Ray Walker did what so many of us dream about - he quit his boring desk job to follow his real passion, winemaking. And not just any winemaking, but the terroir-specific wines of Burgundy, France. Starting from the literal bottom (cleaning vats and packing bottles in California wineries), Walker eventually decides to move to France with little money and speaking almost no French. The Road to Burgundy has some insights into California and French winemaking, but it's mostly a memoir of a bold man. That the gamble apparently didn't pay off in the long run is no matter - dreams seldom come true, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't chase them.

Secrets of the Sommeliers

While researching wine, I came across Belinda Chang, an amiable wine expert who mentioned Secrets of the Sommeliers as a good resource. The book looks at wine from the perspective of elite sommeliers, wine directors, and producers, with a mix of candid interviews and a nifty appendix of major wines by co-author Rajat Parr (himself a top wine director). This is about as far from your $9.99 supermarket bottle of Barefoot Merlot as you can get, but it's good to see that in the end, wine boils down to the basics - smell, taste, and memory.

Cork Dork

Wide-ranging, often funny, and very personal, Bianca Bosker's Cork Dork details her year and a half of experiential journalism in the world of wine. Starting from never having worked in a restaurant and not being able to tell a Chablis from a Chardonnay, Bosker investigates everything from the secretive world of New York City's "somms," the wine and dining habits of the ultra-rich, and brain researchers looking into the neural activity of wine drinkers. Her transformation - from "civilian" to a "cork dork" - climaxes with the Court of Master Sommeliers "Certified Sommelier" Examination, a grueling test of wine knowledge, blind tasting, and wine service that many fail. How'd the author do? Well, you'll just have to read the book and find out.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Guns: S&W Model 15 review - The Riot Revolver

Guns and ammunition are getting awfully hard to come by these days, but you might be able to find a used revolver like this S&W Model 15-7 on a store shelf. I picked mine up from a local gun store clearance table years ago for $250, including a leather duty holster, two HKS speedloaders, and a speedloader belt pouch. I thought it was a screaming deal back then, and recent events have only reinforced that belief.

It might seem silly to pack only six rounds of .38 in this era of mob violence, but this Smith still has a few advantages over a modern semiautomatic. The manual of arms is easy, so even your friend-who-went-shooting-with-you-a-couple-times can use it, should you need to loan it out. .38 Special is common enough to be sold in Walmart, but just uncommon enough that there might be a box or two left when all the 9mm is gone. Finally, while there are some people who get the willies from seeing any gun, using an old beater revolver to defend yourself is a lot less likely to get you on national news, as we saw in St. Louis and Kenosha.

The disadvantages of using an old double-action revolver for self-defense? Well, even at +P pressure, .38 Special ranks near the bottom of acceptable defensive rounds, and the gun only holds six of them. Another problem is the heavy trigger - though it's great from a safety standpoint, it increases the risk you will yank or jerk the sights off target. Finally, there's no way to attach a light, so if you ever have to defend yourself, you'll be lining up a black rear sight with a black front sight on what will likely be some dingy street at night.

I thought the S&W Model 15 acquitted itself well at the range - while the outside is scratched to hell from spending too much time in some prison guard's holster, the internals were well-cared for, which showed in the groups. 

At 15 yards, with the right ammo, the S&W 15-7 is plenty accurate:

Don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite, and I fully appreciate the effectiveness of the ARs and GLOCKs of the world. There's a reason cops don't use revolvers anymore. But when those cops aren't around and your street is getting firebombed, an old dog like the S&W 15-7 can still bite.