Brand New Days
Music is a major factor in defining the vibe and aesthetic of a game. A good soundtrack can work as a complement to a story, graphical style, or even the core gameplay, greatly enhancing the experience. A bad or lacking soundtrack is liable to do the opposite…which is why the musical score can often make or break a game for me.
The Persona series, particularly the modern entries (from Persona 3 onward) have become notable in their use of music in creating and complementing each entry’s overall vibe. The use of genres you don’t often see in typical JRPGs, such as jazz and R&B, have made these games’ soundtracks truly stand out.
So, as is the way with this series, they’re milking it for all its worth. 2015 saw the release of Persona 4: Dancing All Night, a rhythm game based around remixes of the soundtrack of the eponymous Persona 4. While obviously made as fanservice, the base game’s soundtrack would’ve lended itself well to a rhythm game. Unfortunately, Atlus’ lack of experience in the genre was made obvious, with Dancing All Night being mostly mediocre and very rough around the edges.
That hasn’t seemed to stop the team, though, as they’re back at it again with two new entries in what can probably now be called the Persona Dancing sub-series. Last year’s Persona 5 is getting the rhythm treatment this time around, as well as (to the surprise and joy of many series fans) Persona 3.
Developed by P-Studio and published by Atlus, both Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight are set for release on December 4th, 2018, for the PS4 and Vita. The PS4 versions were played for this review. As both games are essentially the same base gameplay with different skins, we will be covering both titles in a single review.
Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There
First and foremost, Moonlight and Starlight fixed one of my biggest issues with the series’ last rhythm outing: ditching the required story mode. Persona 4: Dancing All Night attempted to weave an absolutely ridiculous and repetitive story to justify the game’s characters suddenly taking up dancing, locking most of the game’s playlist behind completing it. Moonlight and Starlight forego a story mode altogether.
When starting up a new game, you get a five-minute dialogue scene about how each game’s characters are in a dream world to dance for each game’s Velvet Room attendant…and that’s it. Sure, the setup is still odd, but at least Atlus isn’t trying to make a canon storyline out of these games this time. Once this scene is out of the way, you’re free to dive right into the rhythm gameplay.
There are still some vestiges of story in the form of optional conversations you can unlock with each character. These passages are fairly short (around five minutes each) and typically humorous, and reading through them unlocks some customization options in the rhythm game such as different dancer outfits. Making these optional is definitely an appreciated decision, letting those who are interested unlock and access them while those who just want to play do so unfettered.
Moonlight and Starlight are structured much more like traditional rhythm games. You’re given four songs initially, unlocking more as you complete them, up to around a total of around twenty-five tracks each. Both titles still carry over an issue from the Persona 4 rhythm game, however: too many remixes of the same song. Moonlight offers up three remixes of “Burn My Dread,” while Starlight doubles down with three remixes each of “Rivers in the Desert” and “Life Will Change.” All three are admittedly great songs (“Burn My Dread” in particular), but filling up the setlist with the same song repeatedly rather than picking another from each game’s extensive soundtracks feels somewhat lazy.
The gameplay itself is unchanged from Dancing All Night. A ring of six targets is set up around the sides of the screen, with notes originating from the center and moving outward. You get your standard taps, double-taps, and holds, as well as a scratch note that you have to move an analog stick to hit (which still remains weirdly optional to hit, as in Dancing All Night).
The layout here has its pros and cons. On the positive side, it feels like Atlus has gotten much better at charting. Every chart I played, on both hard and “All Night” difficulty, had sensible flow and matched its respective track well. The charts often made good use of the circular target layout, with notes leading your eyes around the targets and not often suddenly jumping across the screen.
On the other hand, I already had some trouble following this style of charting on the Vita’s screen in Dancing All Night. Having the targets on both edges of the screen requires you to keep your focus on the entire screen at all times, rather than just on certain portions of it. Moving this to my 50″ TV on the PS4 version, and my eyes were getting a hell of a workout spinning and jumping around. The more skillful charting did help to alleviate this issue somewhat, but this is a rare game where I may actually recommend picking up its handheld version for the smaller screen alone.
Graphically, each game takes cues from titles they’re based on. Moonlight retains the blue hue, clean lines, and solid shapes of Persona 3, while Starlight goes for the bright contrasting red and black with stylized formatting from Persona 5. Those familiar with either will feel instantly at home with the presentation here.
The games also definitely take advantage of the PS4 during gameplay, with the background videos featuring much more detailed models and environments than the Vita’s Dancing All Night. I can’t speak for the Vita versions of Moonlight and Starlight, but here on the PS4, it’s definitely easy on the eyes. There were a few times where I would lose notes in the visual noise while sightreading a song, but it never became much of a distraction for me.
The soundtracks themselves are where, of course, each of the two games truly differs. Moonlight‘s soundtrack is heavily weighted toward eclectic hip-hop and R&B with a touch of pop, while Starlight is much more jazz and funk with a bit of a rock edge. While you can’t really go wrong with either, Moonlight has a much stronger soundtrack in my opinion…and this is coming from someone who has never played Persona 3. Moonlight‘s soundtrack just has so much more variety to it, along with more vocal tracks and a stronger finish.
Both soundtracks, though, do offer some nice surprises. The penultimate song in each were probably some of my favorites, and while I don’t want to spoil the reason why, I’ll just say that the presentation of them is much different from the rest of each game.
Burn My Dread
Overall, both Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight are both much better rhythm games than their predecessor, although they still need a bit more tuning before I can truly consider them great entries in the genre. The format of the gameplay is still a bit difficult to follow, but the much more skillful charting in these entries make it more bearable. Having to play multiple remixes of the same song feels like padding as well.
Despite these issues, though, I can still recommend Moonlight and Starlight to not just Persona fans, but general rhythm gamers as well. The wise decision of not shoving a story into these games opens them up to players unfamiliar with the franchise, and the great music contained here should definitely command a look from such people.
You really can’t go wrong with either game, but with the price for both being a bit hard to swallow ($100 for a package of both games upon release), if you can only get one, I’d definitely recommend Moonlight.
While I ditched Persona 4: Dancing All Night immediately after reviewing it, I can definitely see Moonlight and Starlight remaining part of my normal rhythm game rotation.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copies provided by Atlus. Screenshots taken by reviewer.