Persona 4: Dancing All Night is figuratively, as it is literally, a special reunion concert. It’s not meant to build significantly on the franchise’s existing lore, but rather to celebrate it, and do so in a way that’ll keep you feeling upbeat. With the first true sequel on the horizon, this game’s meant to put a bow on the Persona 4 era, and hopefully leave you remembering it fondly.
First impressions can mean a lot, and Persona does a great job of showing its slick, distinctive style from the get-go. Dancing All Night infuses a bit of disco-style glimmer to the palette, but it’s clear that the art team had a great time making this one, and you’ll be happy for it. This may be the last time we see the Persona 4 team in a significant way, and the visuals pull out all the stops, especially in the menus and loading screens, which in other games would be the lame parts.
In any rhythm game, it’s important to understand the systems, and Dancing All Night is no different. It’s not exactly a “beginner” rhythm setup, much in the same way that Persona itself isn’t a “beginner” RPG, but you’ll figure it out soon enough. Stars appear in the center of the screen and move toward one of six button-press symbols: the Triangle, Circle and Cross buttons on the right and Up, Left and Down arrows on the left. When the star lines up with the symbol, you hit the button. Simple enough, right? Well it gets a bit more complicated when you add in simultaneous presses, hold notes and all manner of flicks of the analog stick to trigger radial prompts and build up a Fever meter.
It’s not meant to be intimidating, though. Atlus knows that there are Persona fans who will play this that aren’t rhythm experts, so merely completing a song is aided by some truly forgiving scoring mechanisms. If you just want to play the game on Easy and enjoy yourself, Dancing All Night strikes a nice balance, giving you enough notes to not make it feel like Baby Mode but also giving you sizable room for error before failing you and kicking you out. This changes on higher difficulties, though, so if you’re looking for a challenge, you can certainly find it.
It’s not exactly a “beginner” rhythm setup, much in the same way that Persona itself isn’t a “beginner” RPG, but you’ll figure it out soon enough.
This scheme works well enough, but there are a few things you should know going in. First: these songs aren’t inherently designed for rhythm gameplay, unlike many games of its type, and it shows. The included tracks have been remixed a bit to add a better beat and pace, but the last thing Atlus wanted to do was obscure the original tune, so you still have some segments that are filled with arbitrary button fills that don’t follow the music very much. Second: the timing on hitting the button is a bit earlier than it appears. It’s easy enough to get used to, but it’s more that you’re hitting the buttons when the symbols intersect than the intended total alignment. Still, it’s a rhythm game, so relying on the song itself helps with that.
The third thing is likely Dancing All Night‘s biggest gripe. The notes starting in the center and moving out to the sides of the screen make for a distinctive take, and it certainly looks intuitive, but keeping your focus on both screen edges all the time isn’t easy. You’ll find that seeing when the beats pop up at all is more of a challenge than executing them in rhythm, especially as you get used to the game. There are a few things you can do to help with this. The first is to back away from the screen when you can to keep it in the center of your view. (This may be easier said than done for PlayStation TV users, but try your best.) The second is to adjust the background brightness in the config menu, making the (often crazy-bright) dances and animations less of an obstacle to seeing those glimmering gold stars. Seriously, slide this down to about half: you’ll still see all the dancing, but it won’t get in your way.
Once you get used to the systems, Dancing All Night really starts feeling like Persona. Of course, there are all the songs you know and love, but real effort was put in to make the aesthetics of the tracks match the series’ feel. During the song, the primary dancer will be joined by a partner, and they’ll chat a bit about how they’re doing. Each combination has special quips, and they have a lot of character. Unfortunately, what they don’t have is a lot of variety. These would get repetitive regardless, but when lines repeat in the 45 seconds or so of a song that feature both performers, it’s a problem.
You could enjoy much of Persona 4: Dancing All Night without ever touching the Story Mode, but let’s get real: it’s why you’re here. This mode is essentially a visual novel that just so happens to have a song in it from time to time, with talking character portraits and tons of text. It’s the best story a rhythm game’s ever had, if that means anything, because it’s a Persona tale. That said, it never gets too serious or deep. Like most modern JRPG plots, you really have to suspend disbelief and accept whatever’s going on. What makes this game great is that, once you do, you get some great banter from Chie or Kanji.
The plot itself is very Japanese, though I suppose you’d expect that from Shin Megami Tensei, a series that still uses honorifics in localized text. This one’s particularly hard to relate, though, as a lot of Dancing All Night relies on a base knowledge of stereotypes and cultural norms for Japanese pop idols. Much of the game sees you rescuing members of Kanamin Kitchen, a food-themed pop group that’s working with Rise, and the expectations of how these girls should act and be defines much of the experience. There is literally a whole scene about saying “Nanako-san” instead of “Nanako-chan,” so… this is what you’re getting into. You’ll likely either revel in it or tolerate it, depending on your perspective.
Like most modern JRPG plots, you really have to suspend disbelief and accept whatever’s going on. What makes this game great is that, once you do, you get some great banter from Chie or Kanji.
To help extend the life of the game, Atlus put in a series of customization options into Free Dance mode. You can buy a bunch of costumes for the characters, both matching the old Persona 4 days and gimmicky new attire, and accessorize with headphones and glasses and such. You can choose different partners to jump in and chat during the song. You can even buy consumable items, which… is where the game gets into some sketchy territory. You can buy items to help boost your score or make things harder for you, and since the idea of a rhythm game is generally to replay songs for higher scores, this meddling with the variables makes that less of a clear-cut accomplishment. Still, it’s there, and it does make it feel a bit more like a JRPG. Thankfully, all of this is done with in-game currency; DLC will be available as well (including some songs and, yeah, extra costumes), if you want that kind of thing.
There’s no doubt about it: Persona 4: Dancing All Night is for fans. It’s not meant to be an entry point into the series or a rhythm game that transcends its context. As a result, though, it can focus on delivering a great experience for those fans, and for the most part it does just that. It’s a worthy encore for Persona 4, reminding you how much you love its characters and world.
Just in time to give Persona 5 a ridiculously high bar to clear.