I hate dancing. I can respect dance as an art form and admire those who do it well. I can enjoy and be moved by a dance as a spectator. But I am bad at dancing. I almost never find dancing fun and I am far too gangly and self-conscious to be able to express myself through dance. I lack rhythm, which is why I am not often one to get involved in rhythm games as a general rule. But when one of my favourite Japanese RPGs gets a spin-off rhythm game called Persona 4: Dancing All Night, I can’t help but be reminded of how fantastic the music is in the Persona games and become curious to play it. Will Persona 4: Dancing All Night (P4D) be good enough to tide fans over whilst they wait for the long-anticipated Persona 5? Or will it only serve to fuel their insatiable hunger?
Upon booting up the game, P4D starts up with an extremely stylish intro sequence that immediately made me feel back at home with the Persona 4 universe. Sure, it might not be the same genre as a typical Persona game, but it sure as hell feels like a Persona game. From here the game narrative kicks off with a premise that should be immediately familiar to fans of the original; a rumour has been circulating about a website that appears at midnight and the people who view it disappear. The game is set 6 months after the events of Persona 4 vanilla, and the pop-idol Rise is in the process of making a career comeback, with the rest of the gang from the P4 main cast being reunited through recruitment as her backup dancers for an upcoming performance in the “We Love Bonds Festival.”
From here, the P4 crew quickly find themselves trapped in a supernatural world that appears to be being manipulated by a mysterious, omnipresent voice that commands a large crowd of hostile ‘shadows’. The voice seems interested in trapping characters in the world in order to convince them that the only way to form bonds with other people is to deny your true self. The personal battle between behaving to meet expectations and behaving in a way that is honest and true to oneself was the core upon which Persona 4 was built, and P4D is happy to run with this same premise and take it in a slightly different direction. It’s a game that features more heated discussion about ‘bonds’ than an Ian Fleming book club. In order to fight against the influence of the voice and its minions, the characters must show their true feelings by expressing them through dance. It’s a game where honesty with self and with others is paramount, and dance is a form of expression that will always reveal how we feel. As a wise lady once said, “hips don’t lie”.
I must say I didn’t have the best initial impression of the story, which at the beginning of the game plays out as part ‘self-indulgent fan service’, and part ‘crash course in the plot of Persona 4 vanilla’. Some of the characterisation carried over from the original has failed to translate in the new plot. For example, the protagonist from P4 is no longer silent and is now adopting the canonical name ‘Yu’ rather than allowing the player to choose their own as they could in the original. P4D does a lot to further cement the idea that ‘Yu’ is basically regarded as ‘high school anime Jesus’ amongst his friends, who all apply a disproportionate quantity of admiration to anything he does. Yu is flirted with, admired, and held up as the golden standard in a way that often feels overreaching. This is despite the fact that Yu is no longer serving as an avatar for the person playing, meaning that all the fun and flair has been removed from his character and he has now been reimagined as a boring ‘milk toast’ dude.
Another thing worth mentioning, if you weren’t entirely sure how you felt about the way gender was handled in the characterisation of Naoto Shirogane in the original game, then the opening of P4D will unfortunately drop the ball entirely. As Naoto is introduced into the game Yu reveals in an internal monologue; “when I first met her, she had problems with how others saw her, and presented herself as an adult man. Now, though, she’s shifted away from that.” Which made me feel deeply uncomfortable, as the language definitely frames gender fluidity as a consequence of confusion that should be overcome. In addition to this introduction, the character has also had subtle adjustments made to her costume and design that I can only assume are meant to feminise her character more by being a little more form fitting and showing off a little more shapeliness in the breasts and hips. This was a character that in the previous game largely wore an outfit that, whilst aesthetically similar, did a lot to keep their biological sex a secret. Far be it from me, as a cis-het male, to decide whether or not this is harmful to people for whom this potentially represents. But it certainly felt to me like a step backwards for that character.
But I have to admit that once the game gets into the full swing of things the narrative actually starts to come into its own and become quite compelling. Whilst the beginning of the game is probably the weakest part of the game, players who can stick with it for an hour or two will likely notice a vast improvement in the story. In all honesty the ending is pretty fantastic and does a lot to make you forget the stumbles made towards the beginning.
You might have noticed I haven’t even gotten around to talking about the actual rhythm gameplay yet. Well that’s okay, because the game itself is also quite slow at presenting them. In true Persona style, it won’t be for around 40 minutes until you actually get to start playing the game. In truth, the game is much more a visual novel game with dance sequences than it is a true rhythm game. But if we’re being honest the original game was simply a visual novel with occasional turn-based RPG moments and it’s one of the most fondly remembered games amongst fans of JRPGs. P4D manages to navigate the genre blending with just as much success.
As far as the rhythm mechanics go, they’re pretty straightforward and are executed well. There are six button inputs that you must press in time with the moving prompts, with visually well communicated prompts for simultaneous button presses and bonus stick waggles for extra points. These prompts coincide with the beat and rhythm of the backing track, which are from a selection of iconic tracks from the P4 soundtrack (albeit often in a remixed or alternative form). The game has three different difficulty levels to ensure less rhythmically talented individuals (i.e. me) can still enjoy the game, while still able to meet the needs of more advanced players looking for a challenge. At the higher difficulty levels, the prompts are more frequent and fast moving, giving you less time to prepare for their pressing.
If I have to criticise one aspect of the gameplay, I would say that there is slightly too much bright, visual noise occurring behind the prompts that at times obscured them enough for me to miss them. It wasn’t a constant problem as I just wanted to get through the story, but for a rhythm game enthusiast this may make the game less appealing for competitive or post-story play.
There were a few other things I found myself missing and wanting in P4D. Firstly, I would have liked to see some music from other Persona soundtracks carried over into the game, as Persona 3 has my two absolute favourite songs from the series in it. Secondly, P4D doesn’t have Marie in it, who was my favourite character from Persona 4 Golden – or at least that’s what I thought. After completing the game’s story mode, I decided to look into the DLC packs, where I found out that there is one song available as paid DLC that features an appearance from Maria. At just a few dollars to download I don’t mind paying for Marie, but it makes me wish it was for more than a single song and that she was featured more heavily in the plot. Speaking of DLC, there is a reasonable amount of small DLC packs available on the PS Vita store at the moment already, ranging in price from just a few dollars to totally free. While I don’t think it’s too egregious to sell DLC in this manner, I would like to see some larger DLC packs being released that bundle some of these dribs and drabs together for better value. At the moment it’s good value if you want one song or costume pack in particular, but it kind of sucks if you want a big chunk of extra content.
Overall, Persona 4: Dancing All Night is a well realised, if somewhat unnecessary, extension of the Persona 4 storyline with a great soundtrack and solid rhythm game mechanics. It might not be the Persona game the fandom is hyped for right now, but for those fans of the original willing to try it out, Persona 4: Dancing All Night shows that there’s still some joy left to be had with these characters.