I can’t say I knew what to expect going into Persona 4: Dancing All Night. I mean Persona 4 has an amazing soundtrack and I had no doubts that the Persona team could put together a decent rhythm game, but the idea of sending Yu and his friends off on a dance themed adventure seemed perhaps a tad strange. Thankfully though they’ve managed to craft something compelling out of this bizarre concept, telling yet another meaningful and interesting story of the Investigation Team’s post Midnight Channel exploits while at same time putting together some simple yet nicely flexible rhythm gameplay. While I definitely think this should be the last we see of the Persona 4 cast, Persona 4: Dancing All Night serves as a pleasantly upbeat way to send them off before they take a bow and we move on to Persona 5.
While the gameplay and presentation most certainly take center stage in this game, why don’t we start off by talking about the story, as that’s what makes this feel like a true Persona game. Taking place after the events of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax (though not referencing the events of those games, nor featuring any of the Persona 3 or Arena specific characters) the premise here involves the Persona 4 crew being asked to act as back-up dancers for Rise’s big comeback show and quickly getting swept up in a kidnapping plot which involves the members of rival idol group Kanamin Kitchen and a new shadow world where feelings are extra potent and violence is impossible. I won’t spoil any of the specific plot points here, but as you might imagine, the Investigation Team adapts to their new surroundings and saves the captured idols by the dancing their hearts out, eventually meeting up with the twist villain and performing an epic final show that puts to mind the end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
It’s a fun little story that does a great job of using the gimmick of dancing to convey emotions to underline and remind us of the lessons all of the party members learned during the events of Persona 4, while at the same time putting forward some new characters with their own struggles for contrast. You even get some nice side threads in the form of the party splitting up by grades, Yu’s cousin Nanako hanging out with Kanami (the only non-kidnapped member of Kanamin Kitchen) while acting generally adorable, and an odd and frankly poorly used framing device involving Margaret telling the story of what’s going on to someone who has ended up in the Velvet Room. There’s a lot going on but it all fits fairly well together and the game uses these different story tracks to keep things interesting throughout the run of its fairly long campaign. However, there is one complaint that I would lodge against this game’s writing and that is the over simplification of the Persona 4 characters, who have lost a lot of their depth since their original 2008 adventure. Everyone has had their primary character trait over-emphasized to the point of being cartoonish; Kanji has been made dumber and more aggressive, Teddy is even more goofy and weird, Dojima is just completely exhausted all the time, and Nanako has become so childish and naive that she seems to act even younger than her age. While this makes sense to a point, it does remove a lot of the texture and unique human edge that helped originally endear us to these characters.
Moving onto the gameplay, the base concepts here are nice and simple but designed to escalate very intuitively, creating rhythm gameplay that’s really easy to pick up but hard to master. There are basically two types of inputs you need to worry about, button presses and thumbstick swipes. Button inputs are done with the Up, Left, Down, Triangle, Circle, and X buttons, with each key corresponding their respective physical directions on-screen. As you might imagine, you simply need to press the buttons as the notes line up, gaining extra points for precision timing. They also throw some dual notes at you, which have you hit two buttons at once, as well as some notes that you need to press and hold, which is all pretty standard rhythm game stuff. They also have large circular beats which come down the line now and then that you need to swipe the thumbstick in any direction to hit. These notes aren’t counted against your combos or your audience gauge (which is basically a “You Rappin’ Cool” meter that acts as your health) but do grant bonus points and extra gauge when you manage to hit them correctly. These large circular notes also help to activate the game’s special fever mode, which grants you a dance partner as well as easier combos and more points for a small period. And that’s pretty much all there is to it, it’s not an overly complex system though obviously it loses something in the written explanation.
That said, because the gameplay is rather simple, it’s also incredibly intuitive and feels nicely tactile as the notes you’re pressing start mixing in with the music. It also enables a very wide range of difficulty options, allowing you to deeply tailor the experience to your specific wants and needs. In addition to four overall difficulty levels (the final one being the unlockable and extremely intense “All Night” mode) there are also a ton of modifiers you can buy and activate. These modifiers do things like make it so that you can press any button to hit any note, take less gauge damage from a miss, make the all notes invisible, make the notes move at hyper speed, as well as numerous other things both advantageous and torturous. This means you can play at the difficulty level you’re comfortable with and then tweak it further to be easier or harder in specific ways that suit your play style. My only real complaint with the gameplay is the fact that the note patterns seem to be complementary to their attached songs rather than strictly imitating the original notes, which can make some of the timing feel a bit more up to interpretation than I’d like. That ends up feeling like a minor quibble though and the patterns still end up feeling natural enough that anyone familiar with the Persona 4 OST will pick up on them rather quickly.
Lastly we have the presentation which is probably the most meaty aspect of this game. Starting off with the visuals, Persona 4: Dancing All Night looks absolutely stunning when it wants to be. While all the story scenes are done with the standard ‘talking head’ character portraits, interspersed with the odd animated cutscene, the actual dance numbers are shown using lush vibrant 3D animation that has the P4 crew looking the best they’ve ever looked. There’s a ton of detail to the character models, the backgrounds are vivid shadow world fever dreams, and the animation is smooth and dynamic. While the choreography is hard to focus on while trying not to fail at the gameplay, it all looks quite well done with each character having their own specific style and flair. They also went all out providing you with tons of costume and accessory options with which to kit out your characters, bringing in almost every costume from Persona 4 proper as well as an array of nonsense costumes. These really help spice things up when you’re playing through the same songs multiple times, as the lead dancer of each specific song can’t be changed. It’s easy to get sick of Yu’s standard costume after a few hours, so why not dress him up as Dojima for shits and giggles, the costume for which even comes with a little cigarette that Yu gets to smoke.
The most important aspect of any rhythm game though is the soundtrack and overall sound design, and Persona 4: Dancing All Night offers both more and less than I was expecting in this regard. The song list consists of a whopping 30 different tracks which split the difference between songs from the game and remixes of those songs. The overall selection has most of what you would want and the remixes are generally pretty decent takes on the songs we’ve come to love, though there are a couple of dubstep style tracks I’m not so keen on. My issue with the tracklist though is that many of the remixes feel somewhat unnecessary and I would have rather they used those spots for other Persona 4 songs or even some stuff off the Persona 3 OST, as the soundtracks of those two games complement each other quite well. One particular omission that really grates on me is the fact that there is no playable version of the Tanaka’s Amazing Commodities theme, a personal favourite song of mine, which plays in the shopping menu but is oddly found nowhere else in the game. As for the rest of the sound design, the voice acting is of the same high quality as always and the sound effects are decent and blend well into songs themselves.
Overall this game feels like a pleasantly upbeat epilogue for the Persona 4 crew. While the characters are starting to lose their luster after all this time and are becoming somewhat watered down, this last adventure helps remind us of the struggles they faced way back when and solidifies their images in our minds as we get ready to head into Persona 5 next year. This is only helped along by some very tight and enjoyable gameplay that should please any level of rhythm game fan, set to a soundtrack that hits the majority of the nostalgic notes that scored our journeys through Inaba. As such I’m giving Persona 4: Dancing All Night a 4 out of 5 stars; it is one last jubilant hurrah for the Midnight Channel, a fitting end to Yu and his crew’s story.