Persona 5 – Playstation 4
TL;DR: Fight monsters whilst attending Japanese high school. A completely unique gaming experience and very highly recommended.
The Persona series is part traditional JRPG and part Japanese high school simulator. Sounds weird, but anyone who has played one of the previous games in the series will know how unique and fun this combination is — and this most recent installment is the best yet.
In the game, your character’s Persona (their alter ego) battles monsters in an alternate dimension featuring a variety of dungeon settings (a bank and an Egyptian pyramid are my two favourites so far). Meanwhile, back in the game’s “real world”, your test scores and relationships with your schoolmates help improve your powers in the virtual world.
Everything about Persona 5 is beautifully designed, right down to the menus. Even the post-fight and loading screens offer more visual flair than most entire games. It’s a unique and stylish gaming experience that comes highly recommended.
Ethnos – tabletop game
In short: This game is a nuanced combination of earning points for playing card sets and controlling the map. It’s quick, lots of fun, and full of replay potential.
Based on its Conan-esque cover art (which I like), you might assume that Ethnos is pretty much a tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons (which I also like). But it’s actually more of a dressed-up Rummy-style game with a map control twist — along the lines of Ticket to Ride, but far more dynamic.
The goal of the game is to get the most glory points, which you achieve by playing sets of cards and placing tokens on the board (a map of Ethnos and its 6 kingdoms). When you play a set, you must give up any remaining cards to a general draw pile. This rule creates tension when you know another player is looking for a specific card, but you need to play your sets to get points or take over a kingdom.
The deck comprises 12 tribes (giants, merfolk, halflings, minotaurs, and other fantasy denizens) and three dragon cards. The dragon cards divide the game into three point-gathering phases called “ages”: each age ends when the third and final dragon card is drawn.
Only 6 of the 12 tribes are in play each game (chosen randomly) and each tribe has a different special ability, making Ethnos hugely variable from play to play. The tribes’ abilities can give advantages in card play or map control, so the winning strategy will differ based on these and other mutable factors. Overall, it makes for an exciting and ever-changing game experience.
Florence – mobile game
In short: Florence is a short game, but its standout design, music, and storytelling make it absolutely worth 45 minutes of your time.
Florence is a unique mobile game now available on both iOS and Android. It tells the story of a young woman falling in love for the first time. At the start, you get to know Florence, who is all of us when we’re in our 20s: working a job and just going through life. She meets Krish and they go through the ups and downs of a relationship together. The game provides an emotional glimpse into a part of life we can all relate to and reminds us how the people in our lives change us (hopefully for the better).
What makes this game so exceptional is how the story unfolds as you play. The entire experience flows seamlessly and the gameplay makes you feel involved and emotionally invested in Florence’s story. The music and art are standouts here and make every minute enjoyable. Although it is a short story, there’s no better way you could spend a free 45 minutes.
Shred Kelly – band
My pick gives you: Irresistible energy, neon ski jackets, and manic banjo playing.
I first discovered Shred Kelly through the irresistible 2015 track “Sing to the Night” and its accompanying video: a perfect representation of the vibrancy, joy, and manic banjo playing that defines Shred Kelly’s particular variety of “stoke folk”.
This March, they were back on my radar with a vengeance as I prepared my ears for their Victoria show on the 30th. I was especially pleased to discover their carefree, addictive new single “Archipelago” (from the recently released album of the same name) and the delightfully weird video for “Family Oh Family”.
I would enjoy Shred Kelly’s music regardless of their nationality, but their overt Canadianness makes them all the more endearing to me. They hail from a small Rocky Mountain town and aren’t afraid to shoot music videos during the snowy winter (including the aforementioned “Sing to the Night” video — which, really, you should watch. It’s great.). When I’m far from home, Shred Kelly will certainly appear on my nostalgia playlist alongside The Tragically Hip and other quintessentially Canadian groups.
Malibu by Anderson .Paak – album
The short and sweet: An amazing R&B/Soul hip-hop album with big vibes.
I discovered this 2016 album very recently and have been listening to it quite a bit these past few days. What I love about this album are the elements of very thoughtful R&B/Soul compositions supplemented with smooth hip-hop elements. The first track, “The Bird”, teases the soul with colourful lyrics, tasty saxophone chops and an overall sense of warm nostalgia.
Rachel Rising by Terry Moore – comic book series
In short: I spent an entire day going through the seven graphic novels and wanting more after finishing them.
As you’ll see in some of my future Pop Culture Picks, I am a voracious reader of books, magazines and comic books. This month’s pick was an accident. I caught a recommendation on Twitter about how the series had been added to the Unlimited Reading List of Comixology (a subscription-based service offering a mountain of comics to read from multiple publishers).
At first I was unsure, but I was drawn in by the story arc of a modern girl being reanimated from the dead and searching for her killer. Add in the eternal battle between good and evil, a town with a history of witches, and a young girl destined to host the anti-Christ, and it became an immediate binge. Soon it evolved into a deeper story of lost love, family, and self-transformation. Do we control our own destiny or are we just playthings in larger game around us?
What’s your April pick? Tell us on social media.
Our top pop culture recommendations for the month of March. Don’t forget to check out our picks for February too. There’s lots of good stuff in there for you!
Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
My pick gives you: a cold, bleak, desolate feeling with a touch of zombies. Enjoy!
Oh, I love a good board game. Throw in some zombies, food rationing, teamwork and a few good weapons and I’m very happy.
Dead of Winter is a board game for 3-5 players. It takes about 2 to 2.5 hours to play it for the first time. After that, it’ll be a solid 1.5 hours of fun gameplay and not so much rulebook consultation.
You and your friends each play a survivor character with a secret objective and a team objective to complete before the zombies take you down. Working together, you have to complete your objectives while searching locations like the school or the police station for valuable items (gasoline, guns and medicine.) And every time you step outside the compound you risk being “exposed”. Exposure to frost bite or a wound will make things uncomfortable for your character, but a zombie bite will take you down and the other survivors nearby.
The gameplay is mostly chance/luck by the roll of the dice, but you also get to make decisions with your teammates that affect the outcome of the game. The best advice I can give you is to watch out: there could be a betrayer among the survivors. Oh and double-tap, always double-tap.
NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories by NOFX with Jeff Alulis
Long story short: It’s not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of the band or just great rock ‘n’ roll biographies in general, this is a must.
I’ve been a fan of the punk rock band NOFX for a long time now — they’ve been around for over 30(!) years and I’ve been there for close to 20 of those. They’re still going strong, but given their DIY attitude and aversion to interviews, it’s been hard to piece together a history of the band until now.
Written on a chapter-by-chapter basis by current and former members of the band, this book details their long and fascinating story in what many might consider disturbing details: drummer Smelly’s battles with heroin addiction, singer Fat Mike’s weird sexual habits, and the band’s well-known enthusiasm for illegal substances all get written about here.
TL;DR: Vulfpeck is an explosion of high-energy, musically flawless funk that keeps delivering tasty hooks bound to make you want to move…or at least bob your head.
Vulfpeck is a quirky, yet slick funk group. The core musicians are almost exclusively instrumental; however, many of their songs feature talented vocalists such as the very soulful R&B singer Antwaun Stanley, who sings on a few of my favorite tracks — 1612 and Wait For The Moment, to name a couple.
The backbone of this band is undoubtedly the bassist, Joe Dart. He is consistently deep in the pocket delivering funky intricate rhythms. One of the funkiest, tastiest contemporary bassists around today that I’ve heard. A standout track for Joe is definitely Dean Town, and one of my all-time faves out of their catalog.
Furthermore, the rest of the band comprises extremely tight funky musicians chock-full of exciting showmanship. Their energy renders the group accessible, yet there are quite a few interesting chord changes and stylistic fusions along with general quirkiness that separates them from the pack. This inventiveness keeps Vulfpeck fresh and intriguing to listen to…over and over again.
In terms of albums, you should definitely listen to The Beautiful Game. It’s amazing.
To sum up: Coco is beautifully animated, culturally immersive, and heartfelt.
Coco was released on DVD in February. Once again, Pixar explores some familiar tropes — loss, family and coming-of-age — but still manages to keep it fresh and heartfelt. The exploration of Mexican culture and mythology is just as immersive as the representation of Polynesian culture in Moana. As you’d expect, Pixar’s animation is unbelievably beautiful, especially with the rich landscape of bright Mexican colors and themes.
It’s hard not to compare Coco with The Book of Life (also amazing) since both films focus on the Day of the Dead holiday, but the interpretation is actually quite different. There were two elements that really resonated with me about Coco. The first was the value of family: how family is a binding force, how we establish traditions, and how our sins can haunt those who come after us. This understanding also applies to our work families and even extends to our society. We are all one family and what we do today will affect generations of tomorrow.
Secondly, with all of the nationalist movements and xenophobia spreading across the world and especially here in the United States, I deeply appreciate Pixar/Disney’s choice to keep making movies that celebrate diversity and other cultures. From Moana to Zootopia and now Coco, it seems that Disney, through entertainment, is helping to show the world the importance of tolerance and kindness — that all cultures should be celebrated and that diversity makes us stronger. Well done, Disney and Pixar. Well done.
RUINER (available on PC and consoles)
TL;DR: RUINER is a stylish and fast-paced top-down cyberpunk shooter, with a kick-ass soundtrack to boot. Go get ‘em, puppy!
This game was released in September 2017 by the Polish indie studio Reikon, but has been regularly updated, including the recent “Annihilation Update”.
I have a soft spot for the old-school-style isometric shooters and platformers that only seem to be released by indie studios nowadays. RUINER is a cyberpunk-inspired isometric shooter with a slick art style and a great soundtrack that really enhances the futuristic setting. The overall look pays homage to Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell.
Your character is a cybernetically enhanced individual who can only communicate via nods or shrugs, as well as through a helmet that displays feedback across its faceplate. You are assisted by a seemingly friendly hacker who offers encouragement and direction as the story unfolds. However, nothing is as straightforward as it seems, and unraveling the mystery plays a large part in encouraging the player to progress.
Gameplay utilizes dual stick controls (moving/aiming) which keeps the action fast-paced and fluid. A dash option allows your character to move quickly across the screen, avoiding damage and moving in for the kill. Weapons include guns (lots of them) and melee (bats, swords, pipes, etc.)
Layered over those basic controls is the ability to customize your play style via skill tree. For example: unlocking an ability to trigger a “slow-mo” mode that makes dodging bullets easier or “hacking” your enemies to get them to fight for you.
The game is challenging (on normal or hard), but offers enough checkpoints for you to stop and start when you like without losing progress. RUINER is a great game to fire up and enjoy without having to worry about investing huge chunks of time.
Kaputt by Destroyer
My pick gives you: an absorbing album dripping with ambiance and smooth, cool 80s style.
This album actually came out in 2011, but it’s a new discovery for me. I love an album that you can really get lost in and this one is ready-made for a heavy daydreaming session. Kaputt is smooth and dreamy, lush and impressionistic. It’s a little bit jazzy, a little bit new wave, and 100% nostalgia. I may have been born in the 90s, but I can still miss the 80s, right? (Cue I Miss New Wave by Matthew Good…there’s a bonus recommendation for you!)
What’s your March pick? Tell us on social media.
We love all sorts of media and we want to share some favorites to fill up your February.
The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown
My pick gives you: glamor, glitz, back-stabbing, social climbing, legendary authors and ladies trying to get it all done
This month, I polished off the The Vanity Fair Dairies. I first heard Tina Brown being interviewed by Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney, on his brilliant podcast (another recommendation). I loved hearing about Tina’s experience being a young woman and editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair in the 1980s. She spoke about getting the best from her writers and being a wife and mom while trying to build a business (Vanity Fair was flailing when she took over).
I related to her passion for telling true stories, both in the magazine and in her life, so I grabbed her book. As you’d expect, the pages are full of juicy celebrity tidbits (I distinctly remember the hubbub of the Demi Moore cover) and the male power plays in the publishing world.
It’s lovely and fun, but what really drew me in were her moments of truth, like when she trusted her gut and went after the position of editor-in-chief, or when she lamented over not spending enough time with her kids and juggling so many work nights out.
Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii)
My pick gives you: classic JRPG, great graphics and excellent British voice acting
This game is a few years old now (it came out in 2010 — positively ancient in gaming terms) and its sequel has just been released on the Nintendo Switch to mixed reviews, but it’s the original that’s really got me hooked at the moment. Released on a platform not known for its “serious” RPGs, Xenoblade received a limited release in the West and as such, has become a cult classic amongst JRPG nuts like me.
With great graphics (for the Wii), excellent (and very British) voice acting, and expansive, lovingly created environments (the entire game world is set on the back of two giant robots), Xenoblade Chronicles has everything and more for fans of the genre. It’s a classic JRPG that I’d rate in my top 5 of all time — right up there with Final Fantasy 7.
TL;DR: “If Oden played RTS’s, he would be pleased with Northgard.” — Some dude on steam
Northgard is a super fun and engaging RTS game that is currently in early access. It’s a bit slower paced than some traditional RTS games, such as Age of Empires. The slower pace –combined with beautiful, artistic graphics — renders it almost relaxing. It is Norse-themed and revolves around expanding territory, surviving harsh environment changes, balancing economy, conquering other tribes, and many other meta game mechanics.
Although the game moves at a lesser rate, it consists of rich gameplay dynamics and varied win conditions that give way to a plethora of strategies. If you enjoy RTS games, you should definitely check this one out. It’s currently available on Steam. Despite being in early access, it is a complete game with a few minor glitches here and there — but hey, that’s half the fun of early access!
The Worm’s Heart by The Shins
My pick gives you: classic indie sound with an interesting twist
This is a really interesting concept album. It’s essentially a “flipped” version of their most recent album, Heartworms. Frontman James Mercer said in a news release that he wanted to make “an alternate version, an opposite version” of that album.
Basically what that means is that the track listing is reversed: slow songs are now fast, fast songs are now slow. I really like to see bands experiment and play with their music, treating it like a raw resource rather than a final and solid object. I was a fan of The Shins already, but I’m especially impressed with them after this recent effort.
The Shape of Water
My pick gives you: spies, spunky cleaning ladies, stunning visuals, a new kind of swamp monster, and a trip back in time to the 1960s
This is maybe a pretty obvious recommendation — movies generate so much buzz that I’m sure you’ve heard all about it already. But it would be terribly misleading if I were to pretend that anything else had had as great an impact on me this month as The Shape of Water did. I saw it twice, it hit me that hard.
Del Toro and his incredibly talented team have created a beautiful film in every sense: cinematically, narratively (is that a word?), musically, and dramatically. It manages to be fantastical yet grounded, and it wasn’t just the creature and the main character that I fell in love with — I also loved the supporting characters: Giles, an elderly gay artist, Zelda, a caring cleaning lady, and Dmitri, a Russian spy/scientist.
What’s your pop culture pick? Tell us on social media!
Back in the day, AE started out working directly with music labels and management companies to help connect artists and fans through Spotify and other platforms. We’ve never forgotten those musical roots.
We want you to listen in on our monthly Spotify playlist.
Taking messy customer noise from far-flung internet networks and compiling it into useful data lends itself to compiling songs into a kickass playlist. How about that!
Want a sneak peek? Give this track a listen or keep scrolling for more bite-size portions of our new Spotify playlist. We love all sorts of genres, so rest assured, there’s something on there for everyone!
We’re a couple weeks into a new year now and we want 2018 to be exciting, fun-filled, and inspired. I guess you could say it’s our new year’s resolution. We’re so excited to see what the year has in store for us. Our challenge was to channel all that positive energy into something concrete that we could all contribute to and share…within the AE offices and beyond!
The result is our first monthly AE Spotify playlist. That’s right, this isn’t just a one-time thing! No need to be sad when it’s over, because you can already start looking forward to February’s jams.
Don’t forget to reach out to us! We’d love to hear from all our smart marketers, music junkies, and partners. This playlist is a team effort and that includes you! So let’s talk music. What’s your favourite track? What should we add? What do you want to hear next month?