If surface appearance was everything, Persona 4: Dancing All Night would be a disconcerting break from the story, characters, and gameplay that made Persona 4 special. Thankfully, Dancing All Night’s true self possesses most of the must-have qualities.
For starters, the brilliant cast of Persona 4–eccentric, charming, varied–is here in full force. The main party members from the original JRPG take center stage, but several new characters are introduced early on.
This spices up a narrative that treads familiar thematic ground. The original Persona 4 explored the “true selves” of its protagonists–their doubts, quirks, and vulnerabilities manifested as evil Shadows in the mysterious world of the Midnight Channel. In Dancing All Night, the main cast dives into a mysterious world called the Midnight Stage to rescue kidnapped idols from empty, artificial “bonds” that tie them to their fans. The thesis? Embracing and showing one’s true self, and being accepted by others in turn, is the only way to form true bonds.
P Studio artfully weaves this theme into dialogue and gameplay alike. The nature of bonds–how some can be authentic, others fake and imprisoning–is a lens used to examine fame, celebritism, the Japan-centric idol craze, and personal relationships. Plot twists and character development hold the lens to these topics. And on the Midnight Stage, the feelings expressed via dancing are amplified, so Dancing All Night’s rhythm-based gameplay isn’t merely fun and addictive. Dancing is the surest way to express one’s true self and begin to seek the truest bonds of understanding, so Yu Narukami and the gang must dance to show the kidnapped idols how to break their false bonds for themselves.
I loved the quality of writing and the chance to see beloved characters interact anew, but Dancing All Night’s story mode was still a bit disappointing. Despite being a visual novel at heart, it’s a short journey (about 10 hours) with no meaningful choices or branching paths. You’ll spend a lot more time reading dialogue than tapping along to music, and you won’t play every song in the story’s course. And ironically enough, the game settles into its own rhythm that breeds predictability. One song upon entering a new area, another as we chase the kidnapped idol, a third to seal the rescue… This is the pattern for much of the early game, and this general “rule of threes” holds true throughout.
Thankfully, Dancing All Night is a blast to play, so the impact and thrill of those songs keeps the experience exciting. As a song proceeds, beats flow outward from the center of the screen toward corresponding windows around the perimeter. These windows correspond with the buttons you need to press and are smartly arranged to mimic the Vita’s button layout. You’ve got the Up, Left, and Down D-pad buttons along the screen’s left edge and Triangle, Circle, X along the right edge.
The inputs are simple (presses, holds, and optional flicks of the right analog stick), but what really makes Dancing All Night immediately accessible is this interface. This allows me to think about the beats and my next inputs both visually and spatially. I can see the icon for the button I need to press, but the game screen itself is like a finger map for where I need to press. The result is an extremely gentle learning curve with room for complexity that isn’t immediately overwhelming–a common pitfall of rhythm games that Persona deftly dances around.
Of course, there’s no denying that some of Dancing All Night’s appeal comes from knowing these songs and characters and having associated memories. Tapping with emphasis to the Persona 4 Golden battle theme while Yu busted his best moves gave me chills. The first time I saw Yosuke’s Jiraya pull out an electric guitar and start slaying, I silently cheered. The soundtrack is almost entirely composed of Persona 4 originals and a bevy of new remixes, and for the most part, these songs are great in their own right. The remixes skew toward EDM that’s tasteful and emphatic, and in the whole setlist, there’s only a couple stinkers I wouldn’t be keen to play again. But for me, the fun of Dancing All Night comes just as much from reliving battles and moments in my mind’s eye as from the songs themselves. Suffice it to say, unless there’s no genre you love more than the rhythm genre, this shouldn’t be your Persona series entry.
After the story’s perfunctory conclusion, there’s a fairly robust Free Dance mode to keep you coming back. You could spend plenty of time here unlocking content and topping your high scores, but the progression and unlocks themselves leave something to be desired. Will clearing a song unlock another song? A new partner character for that song? You never know what will get unlocked or when, and there’s no completion percentage to watch. Meanwhile, over in the game’s shop, many of the costumes and accessories you can purchase are carryovers from Persona 4 and Vita’s Persona 4 Golden. The best unlockables might be items you can purchase and add to songs as power-ups or handicaps. When you need a cash boost to purchase more things, it’s fun to experiment with these modifiers and reap extra rewards for the custom difficulty.
Still, I did find Dancing All Night to be a bit slim on content. It’s disappointing that every song has an assigned character you can’t stray from, most of the cosmetic items have been seen before, and while the remix-heavy soundtrack amounts to about 30 songs, those branch from only a dozen or so unique tracks. Story Mode’s ease and brevity is also to blame. But it’s important to remember that, in every other aspects, Dancing All Night shines. It’s a gorgeous game with crisp graphics, vivid colors, and impressive special effects. The endearing characters are well-written all around, the rhythm challenges are accessible yet boast a high skill ceiling, and P Studio expertly weaves Persona 4’s trademark themes into a narrative tapestry that manages to evoke both nostalgia and intrigue. Dancing All Night is always a joy to play; I only wish there more to enjoy. In that way, it’s not so different from the 80-hour masterpiece RPG that came before.
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