New Yet Strangely Familiar
Spinoffs are an interesting beast. You have a franchise that’s a hit with the public, and they keep asking for more. Maybe, though, you’re more interested in moving on to something else. Or, perhaps, you have a story or set of characters that you’re not ready to let go of yet. A spinoff allows a creator to keep some familiarity around a piece of media while reaching out to something new.
Sometimes spinoffs make sense. For example, to fit the main topic of this article, the Persona series is a spinoff of the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series (which itself is a spinoff too, but not important here). Persona took some of the general themes and, in the first couple entries, gameplay elements of Shin Megami Tensei and put them in a new focus. It quickly gathered fans as the series progressed and became a great success.
Other spinoffs can be a bit more…interesting. Take, for example, the amazingly-popular Persona 4. A very story-heavy JRPG, the game exploded on its launch in both Japan and the West, and its creator, Atlus, hasn’t let go of it yet. First, they released the Persona 4 Arena games. Moving the story and cast into a fighting game may seem unusual to some, but with the amount of combat in the original game, it’s a somewhat logical extension. Next up was Persona Q, which also spun off a bit from Persona 3. This one was a dungeon crawler, which is quite a bit closer to the original game’s presentation, and made decent sense to create.
Now, though, we get the game Persona 4: Dancing All Night. In this game, we take the characters and themes from the original and put them into…a rhythm game. As I said, a bit more interesting.
Persona 4: Dancing All Night (P4D for short in the rest of this review) was released on September 22nd, 2015 in North America. Developed and published by Atlus, the game was released for the PlayStation Vita.
Reason Behind A Song
Now this is a rhythm game that actually has a full story, which is pretty unusual in its own right.
P4D takes place after the main story of Persona 4. More specifically, if you wish, after the epilogue included in Persona 4 Golden. Rise Kujikawa, a popular idol who was taking a break from the limelight in the original game, has decided to return to performing. Her big comeback performance has been set up at a festival called Love Meets Bonds. Also to be featured at the festival are an up-and-coming idol group called Kanamin Kitchen, led by new character Kanami Mashita.
Rise has invited the cast from the original game to join her in her performance, and the game begins a few days before the festival is scheduled to happen. While rehearsing, Rise and the Persona 4 main character (now officially named Yu Narukami) are informed of a rumor related to the festival website: if you visit the website at midnight, you will see a strange video. If you watch it, you will be “pulled to the other side” and never wake up again.
This being Persona, of course, the rumor proves to be true. Mostly. After Rise and Yu try it for themselves, they find the Midnight Stage on the other side, with a mysterious voice inviting them to “forget their true selves” and bond with it. They manage to escape, but the next day, the members of Kanamin Kitchen (minus Kanami) are pulled in. Strangely, though, it happens at midday, rather than at midnight as in the rumor.
And so, the cast dives in after them, set on rescuing the idols from the Midnight Stage. But can they do it in time?
Overall, once the story is rolling, it becomes incredibly repetitive. It uses the same “save each character, one at a time” base that Persona 4 did, but unlike that game, every sequence is exactly the same. By the time you get to the third idol, you can predict exactly how everything will happen. Even beyond that portion, the story remains rather stale. The game, of course, has some twists, but offers nothing too surprising. In fact, you’ll probably see most of them coming from a mile away.
Another major mark against this game is that the story is stupidly slow. Nearly every game in the Persona series has an overly-drawn-out prologue, but the one offered here is rather pointless and occasionally inane. P4D is supposed to be a rhythm game at heart with a story alongside it, so it shouldn’t take nearly two hours to reach the first real song…
Dance Your Soul Out
Now, I’m a massive fan of rhythm games, and I quite enjoyed Persona 4 outside of a few faults. With this in mind it pains me to say: P4D is a mediocre rhythm game.
The layout used for this game places six targets in a circle around the outside area of the screen. These targets correspond to the outer-most buttons on the Vita (all D-Pad except right and all face buttons except square). Notes originate from the center of the screen and move toward the targets on the outside. Once the note overlaps the target, of course, you hit the button. All the standard note types are here too: normal notes, holds, multi-button…Unique is a ring that moves toward all targets at once, which you have to flick one of the analog sticks to hit. This note, weirdly, is optional to hit.
I feel that this kind of layout hinders the gameplay and holds back some creativity and difficulty. Your eyes have to be aware of the entire field at all times, as there’s no real hint what target a note is moving toward when it first appears. The target layout limits the size of the note field as well, which leads me to believe that more interesting and difficult note charts had to be scaled back to avoid cluttering the field to a stupid degree.
Also, in my experience, the music and the notechart seem to be occasionally off sync by a few milliseconds. This is a pretty hardcore death knell for a rhythm game.
The game offers two modes: the story mode and a free-play mode where you can play any of the songs whenever you want. Strangely, songs have to be unlocked separately in each mode. If you decide to play through all of story mode first, you’ll still have to unlock every song when you go to free-play. Also, there’s a limit to the number of songs you can unlock in free-play right off the bat. You won’t be able to unlock them all until you clear story mode. I assume this is because some songs can spoil story moments, but having the songs held back like this is fairly annoying.
As far as difficulty, there are three available right away in free-play, the typical easy, normal, and hard. You can unlock an extreme difficulty, called “All Night,” as well, but you have to jump through some hoops to do so, and they hinge on, of course, completing the story mode. You are able to select your difficulty in story mode as well, but, unless I made some kind of mistake in my playthrough, I was stuck playing songs on easy mode, despite selecting the normal difficulty.
For rhythm game veterans that seek a challenge, let me say: there isn’t much to be found here. Once you adjust to the game’s system, even the highest difficulties are rather mundane to those that play these games regularly. However, if you’re not much of a rhythm game player, there is some challenge to be had.
Typical for these games as well, there are a number of unlockable costumes for the characters, which can be purchased for use with in-game cash. I don’t have much more to remark on in that department, as it’s fairly typical.
Mad Dance Skills
If you feel like I’ve been doing nothing but bashing on the game so far…well, you’re right, but don’t fear, I can praise it here!
The graphics are beautiful and incredibly pleasing to the eye. The character designs are what you expect from Persona 4, but the renders of the characters during dance portions are excellent. The characters are well detailed (especially in some of their alternate costumes) and the animations are excellent as well. Each song had its own dance created for it, along with some available variations depending on which characters are dancing.
Unfortunately, usable characters are limited with each song. I was disappointed that I couldn’t just make Chie (the best character) dance in every track…but I swear this part didn’t affect my opinion!
Outside of rhythm gameplay, the story is handled in a very pure visual novel style. The character designs here are exactly what you would expect. Returning characters are presented in the same style as the original game, although in different outfits. New characters are presented in a matching style.
You Know and Love ‘Em
Sorry guys, back to the negative.
At first glance, the soundtrack seems decent. The tracks are mostly remixes from the original game and its spinoffs, and most of the remixes fit the rhythm gameplay well. Once you start unlocking tracks though, you begin to notice…tracks are reused quite a lot. I am a fan of “Shadow World,” the opening theme of Persona 4 Golden…but three versions of it is overkill.
However, it could be forgivable if there were enough other songs available, but P4D falls short here as well. Around thirty tracks…less if you didn’t count the repeating songs. It helps that the songs are solid (Persona games typically have strong soundtracks), but it doesn’t lend itself to strong long-term replayability.
On the plus side, sound quality is great. The game is also fully voice acted, with most of the original English voice cast returning. Weirdly, the VA of Rise, arguably the main character of this game, did not return. However, I didn’t even notice until someone else pointed it out to me. Her new VA does a surprisingly good job, and the returning cast is just as strong as ever.
Fall to Shadow
Let’s just flat out say it: P4D exists for fanservice. People love these characters, and Atlus knows it, so they keep the games coming. However, this game proves that you can’t just shove these characters into anything and create an instant classic.
Honestly, I was surprised by how mediocre the rhythm game system turned out. When the game was first announced, I could have sworn that Atlus was working with a team that worked on the Hatsune Miku Project Diva games. I looked into it, and found out that Atlus decided to part ways with that team and handle the game on its own. If I can tell you directly: that was a mistake.
If you’re a Persona fan, and especially a Persona 4 fan, there are aspects of this game that you will enjoy. Mostly, as I said, the fanservice aspects. After all, you get to spend more time with your favorite characters, who are still fairly well-written here. If you’re more interested in the rhythm game aspect, though, there’s not much to be found in this game.
I was excited for the chance to play this game. However, while not an outright failure, it turned out to be mediocre and a relative disappointment.
…but more Chie always helps.
~ Final Score: 5/10 ~
Review copy provided by Atlus for Vita. Screenshots taken by reviewer.