The Persona series is definitely ATLUS’ breakout hit, a successful paranormal series that’s spawned multiple spin-offs and sequels including a chibi dungeon crawler for the 3DS and a 2D fighting game for PS3 and XB360. Odds are that if you’re even reading this review, you’ve at least laid hands on most all of the Persona games, beaten your favorite multiple times, and are still recovering from the heartbreak of the recently-announced Persona 5 delay. ATLUS’s newest title is a rhythm game: Persona 4: Dancing All Night (P4D), and though franchise vets are bound to get some good times out of the title, the game takes a few missteps on its way to dancing glory.
For better or worse, P4D is essentially two separate products bundles into one package: a handheld-friendly rhythm game that doesn’t skimp on challenge, and a “Story Mode” which is really a visual novel set in the Persona 4 universe with rhythm-based cutscenes. The rhythm game that forms the backbone of P4D is a great one, a simple system fans of games like Hatsune Miku and Dance Dance Revolution will already understand conceptually. Notes move from the center of the screen outward towards the edges, indicating the timing needed to press each button while characters from the game perform dance routines in the background. Songs feature combinations of single notes, hold notes, and “scratches,” optional blue circles where tapping a thumbstick in any direction increases the combo. Scratches sometimes show up as multi-colored “FEVER” rings; scratch enough of those successfully and you’ll trigger Fever Mode, typically activating a partner dance with another Persona character and scoring you bonus points. Each song you clear gains you money, which you can then use to unlock costumes and items for use in free-play mode.
In presentation, Dancing All Night puts on a stellar performance. Free Play starts you with a limited number of songs, giving you access to more as you clear routines. Each of the songs features Persona 4 characters like white-haired senpai Yu Narukami, J-Pop idol Rise Kujikawa, and TV-world spawned bear Teddie performing motion-captured choreography of real dance routines, some of which made me wish I had the skill to replicate them in reality. (By the way, there’s a choreography mode that lets you just watch the dances from multiple angles in case you’re looking to form your own idol group.) The music, mostly all J-Pop in nature, covers a wide range from aggressive metal-y songs to upbeat pop to slower, swing-style jazz. Also, there’s a wide variety of difficulty settings ranging from the near-sleep-inducing Easy mode all the way to the nearly inhuman All Night difficulty.
I started the game on Easy and was disappointed; Persona veterans are used to a certain amount of difficulty in their titles, and Easy definitely doesn’t offer it. The “All Night” difficulty, on the other hand, reminds you that ATLUS did publish this title, after all, and face-melting difficulty is not only possible, but expected. I found Hard mode was my comfortable point as a rhythm vet but not someone with absurd talent. If you need a decrease in challenge (or increase) on a particular difficulty, there are plenty of unlockable items to spice up routines: speed ups, slow-downs, vanishing notes, and the like, each of which modify the amount of bonus money you receive at the end of the routine.
For those coming to P4D for the Story Mode, well…my opinions are mixed. Story Mode presents a roughly 6-8 hour experience, but that experience involves little interaction with the game. Rise is set to perform in front of tons of fans for the Love Meets Bonds festival. Of course, she refuses to perform without the rest of the Investigation Team as her backup dancers (which makes no sense, but is allowable for the sake of the game), so Yu, as well as Chie, Teddie, Naoto, and the rest train with Rise for weeks in preparation for the event. And it’s a good thing, too, because when members of the up-and-coming idol group Kanamin Kitchen mysteriously disappear, and rumors of a website which takes viewers to “the other side” never to return, the Investigation Team gets on the case to find out the truth. Transported to the Midnight Stage after watching the website themselves, the crew must use their dancing skills to combat the shadows in a world where there’s no combat allowed.
Conceptually, the story in P4D handles multiple issues relevant in both Japanese society as well as in the world-at-large: the power of stardom and the responsibilities it carries, the pressure to do what society dictates and pushing your own feelings aside, the value of real friendship and the pain of unfulfilled dreams amidst “success.” And, as a fully voice-acted novel with plenty of humor and some exciting moments, the story mode is worth checking out. In execution though, the story itself gets repetitive as it jumps between branches: Yu, Rise, and Kanami (the front of Kanamin Kitchen) each have their own separate story arcs that cover the story from their points of view, and much of it feels drawn-out as characters take time to repeatedly spell out subtleties from earlier in the story, or the same plot device gets repeated for different characters. Also, if you haven’t cleared the other Persona 4 games, get ready to feel on the outside of the inside joke: there are multiple references made as nods to series fans that will go clear over your head unless you seek the advice of the internet. Still, by the end of the quest I felt tied enough to the characters that the Free Play mode actually felt more fulfilling: seeing team dances between Yu and Rise or Yosuke and Teddie are just so much more charming when you actually know who the characters are.
Framed by all of this, the first-week DLC is worth talking about. Unlike most rhythm games, songs in Dancing All Night tend to be full-length affairs, with levels taking 3-and-some minutes to complete. Watching the choreography of each of the different dancers is fun, especially when watching Yu’s little cousin Nanako hop around. The first-week DLC, however, tends not to include any of this: most of the tracks were single verses borrowed from other Persona 4 games, featuring none of the dancing or choreography from the other songs. Though this content is free for the first week to those who buy the game, I hope that future DLC releases incorporate a bit more flash like the core songs.
Persona fans are dedicated to their franchise, and for good reason: mixed in to the hardcore gameplay and JRPG stylings is some of the deepest story and attention to character the genre has to offer. I don’t recommend Persona 4: Dancing All Night as a starting point for newbies, but odds are that if you’ve been waiting for P4D to come out, this is the kind of game that’s tailored for you: lots of fan service, a dark-yet-lighthearted tale about inner discovery, and plenty of challenge to keep you playing for hours on end. Though I’m a bit disappointed in the DLC, it’s really just free icing to put on top of the cake for early purchasers, so I don’t think it’s fair to knock any score off on its account. If nothing else, Persona 4: Dancing All Night is simply fun to play, and though the game’s being sold at a price premium, franchise fans should find the experience worth the price of entry.
Final Score: 4 out of 5