Review: Persona 4: Dancing All Night

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For most gamers, the news that the next iteration of one of your favorite franchises is going to be a rhythm dancing game is likely to be met with an expression that looks an awful lot like a.) the most famous painting by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, or b.) nearly every photograph of Wisconsin Governor/presidential candidate flameout Scott Walker on the campaign trail. Seriously, take your pick.

Then again, most game franchises aren’t Persona 4, the province of clever characters, bizarre-ass shadows, and deftly delivered dialogue. As it turns out, hitting the dance floor with the P4 investigation team in Persona 4: Dancing All Night is a rhythm-based blast, especially when there’s a meaty and engaging story attached to it. That’s what separates this exercise from your run-of-the-mill rhythm dance game. Busting moves is part of the mix, sure, but it’s ultimately secondary to a good 10-plus hours of interactive storytelling.

The plot of Persona 4 was based on the notion that to survive and achieve happiness, everyone had to recognize and embrace (and therefore defeat) the shadows that represented their dark and shameful side—Kanji had to admit his tough-guy exterior was a front for repressed homosexuality, Rise had to acknowledge her wholesome idol image had a sexually charged undercurrent, etc.. Dancing All Night shifts the perspective a little. Here, a new wave of idols get captured and sucked into a different shadow world called the Midnight Stage—they’re Kanamin Kitchen, a five-pack of girls being groomed to take advantage of the hiatus Rise took in Persona 4. These girls are struggling against the pressure to be the person everyone else wants them to be instead of actually being themselves.

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Initially, it’s an odd and somewhat incongruent message, given the subject at hand is Japanese idols, who, like their American counterparts, are nothing if not carefully curated creations. (One of the game’s running jokes is that each of the Kanamin Kitchen idols is pitched as a delicious type of animal for fans to consume/devour). Whether music idols can balance their public image and still maintain their true identity without going crazy is a question folks like Demi Lovato and Justin Bieber could probably hold forth on at length. As far as Dancing All Night is concerned, it’s better to just be real.

The action takes a little while to find its groove, as the early rescuing involves a lot of repetitious conversation and arguments with the mysterious entity that presides over the Midnight Stage. Luckily, the humorous banter between the characters is as sharp as it’s ever been, although groaners like Teddie threatening to unleash the “cub-step” are pretty damned bad. It’s nice to see secondary P4 characters like Dojima and Nanako given an entire story thread.

Personas don’t work as weapons in the Midnight Stage. Only busting righteous dance moves—or, as the game dubs it, expressing genuine emotions and forming bonds with the audience—can chase away the shadows and rescue the idols. And that’s where the dancing comes in. In fact, personas don’t really show up until you’ve successfully completed a dance routine, because god knows you’ve always wanted to see Konohana Sakuya bust a righteous saxophone solo worthy of “Late Night with Stephen Colbert.” The soundtrack is packed with song selections you’ll recognize from the hundreds of hours spent mystery-solving in previous Persona games—and enough remixes of those songs to cover twenty raves.

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The Vita’s controls are well-situated for a game like this, where your rhythm cues, in the forms of stars, hold notes and multiple-button bars that begin at the center of the screen and speed toward to the edges, are interspersed with colored rings that help you launch a fever-score section if you can time a DJ-style flick of the right stick just right. The process can be as challenging as you want it to—the dancing characters bopping and busting on-screen are sufficiently distracting to make even the easy setting more than a stroll on the dance floor, and if you’re craving a brutal challenge, you can find it in the game’s Free Dance Mode, where the number of difficulty modes doubles and you can buy items that make things even more challenging. It can be a little difficult during a number to tell exactly how well you’re doing—the visual meter the game offers is tiny and hard to see—but generally, you’ll know when your rhythm’s reaching Elaine Benes levels of awful.

Even with Persona 5 now bumped to next year, this may the last time we get to play—or in this case dance–with the P4 squad for awhile. If that’s the case, it’s been a fun, and funky farewell.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Another deep story with the P4 Investigation Team
+ Vita controls make playing easy and intuitive
+ All your favorite Persona songs, plus enough remixes to choke DeadMau5

Cons:
– Story starts slowly and repetitively
– Sometimes difficult to tell how well you’re dancing

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Release Date: 9/29/2015
Genre: Rhythm/Dancing
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Buy From: PlayStation Store or Amazon.com

Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.