Has it really been seven years since Persona 4 came out? I guess so, in Japan anyways. To me, it feels like it's never stopped coming out, if that makes any sense. What was originally a beautiful swan song for the PS2 became a multi-media franchise, branching off from the main Shin Megami Tensei series and becoming its own beast altogether.
In the wake of that, we've gotten six separate games, three manga series, two anime series (plus a film,) and a whole slew of merchandise. Not only that, but other entries in the MegaTen brand have become more and more tailored to fans of P4, to the point where the entire DNA of the franchise has become fundamentally altered. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if I open Persona 5 and there's just a disc that says "Persona 4 Golden HD Edition."
Anyway. This is where it allegedly all ends: a rhythm game. How a brutally unforgiving role-playing game with a nuanced and emotionally riveting narrative got turned into a Vita-exclusive rhythm game, I'll never know, but hey, here we are. Persona 4: Dancing All Night is many things. A visual novel. A rhythm game. A canonical sequel to Persona 4. But above all? It's another chance for Atlus to let their prized goose lay one more golden egg. Only, this time, that egg isn't nearly as special or shiny as the first six.
That isn't to say that Dancing All Night is necessarily a bad game, because it isn't. It's pretty solid stuff, actually, and a fun rhythm game in a marketplace desperately needing more of those. We even get an entirely new narrative that's pretty meaty and offers a nice excuse to get reacquainted with the characters we've grown to love over the years. We find the cast getting mixed up in the high-stakes world of the Japanese pop idol scene, and getting sucked into yet another creepy, twisted parallel universe inside of an electronic device (a website this time.) See, the idols of an oddly-themed group get sucked into the website by a mysterious assailant for... reasons. Only, this time, players can't fight the demons that populate the place for... more reasons.
I'll be blunt: this is probably the stupidest story I've seen in a Persona game, and maybe even a Shin Megami Tensei game in general, which means that I'm basically saying the gleefully campy and narratively absurd Soul Hackers has a better story. Not only does it retread a lot of the same beats that were touched on by Persona 4, it does so in a dull, trite, and unremarkable way. The game's attempts at wit fair a bit better, and there are definitely some fun bits of dialogue between fan-favorite characters, but even then, most of the writing just feels shallow, and definitely not compelling enough for extended playing.
Part of that may very well be in the presentation. Because this isn't, in fact, a role-playing game, the narrative isn't progressed through a balanced system of text boxes, menus, and exploring the world, but rather in a more traditional visual novel fashion. That is to say, in a way that is incredibly dull unless the narrative and dialogue are compelling. Which in this case, they aren't, and so the entire narrative suffers from being unremarkable in both writing and presentation. Even the animated cutscenes aren't particularly interesting, thanks in part to rather unremarkable animation.
Some people may jump down my throat for critiquing the narrative in what was always going to be a silly game, but that's just it: the game doesn't treat the concept as if it's silly. Everything ends up getting played very po-faced, once the main brunt of the narrative kicks into high gear, and that just doesn't work. Persona 4 dealt with heavy topics such as toxic masculinity, homophobia, gender identity, and the caustic side-effects of misogyny. In Dancing All Night, a canonical follow-up, the powerful ending to that game is undercut, and any sort of real narrative complexity is dropped in favor of a toothless romp through the world of Japanese idols and demon fighting.
Why, then, would I still contend that this is a pretty good game? That lies in the main meat of the package: the rhythm game itself. Developed by key staff behind the popular and fun Project DIVA franchise, the main component and draw of this entry is some really fun stuff. The screen layout is fairly unique, as there are three icons on each side of the screen, and prompts flow out from the middle of the screen, gravitating towards the icons to be hit in time with the music. There are also optional prompts in the form of flicks of the analogue sticks that replicate record scratches, which are prompted by rings that also flow out from the middle. It's a really novel layout, and much less cluttered than Project DIVA can get at times, while still maintaining the frantic speed that I like about that franchise.
Good mechanics don't mean anything without good music to jam out to, though, and unsurprisingly, the music here is all top-notch. Not only do we get tracks directly from Persona 4, but we also get a slew of remixes and some tracks from the animated incarnations of the game. The biggest advantage here, of course, is that Shoji Meguro is one of the best living composers, video games or no, and so his original score is still incredible seven years later. On top of that, the remixes are all top-notch. In particular, Akira Yamaoka (the famed Silent Hill composer,) Yuu Miyake (Katamari Damacy) and Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear Solid) lend some stellar takes on tracks. Everything here is pleasant to listen to and fun to play.
Only... I wish there were a bit more to play. Maybe that's a bit petty, asking for more of a good thing, but I would hazard to say not. There are only a little over 25 tracks here, and as far as rhythm games are concerned, that's sort of unacceptable. Hatsune Miku Project Mirai DX, which launched a few weeks ago, has close to fifty, on top of a ton of ancillary content to keep you busy. Here, we've got the songs, a story mode, and some unlockable costumes... oh, and a whole spate of DLC that launched with the game. Fun. Oh, and did I mentioned quite a few of the songs are remixes of songs that already have remixes in Dancing All Night? That's pretty obnoxious.
But still, the music is pretty great, and the visuals are among the best on the Vita. Loading times are brief, songs have a lot of replay value (outside of a truly idiotic scoring system that barely makes sense,) and despite being pretty shallow, the story is pretty long and will give you plenty of enjoyment if you really, really wanted more Persona 4.
And maybe that's the biggest sign of whether or not you'll get a kick out of Dancing All Night. Personally, I'm tired of Persona 4. It was a fantastic game, and Golden was a pretty excellent re-release. I'll even defend Persona Q, as I thought it was a clever and fun crossover with Persona 3 (my favorite entry, by the way.) But all the manga? The anime? Two fighting games? Scores and scores of merchandise? I dunno. It all seems a bit much, and throughout my time this past week with Dancing All Night, I felt smacks of desperation. A distinctly corporate attempt to see how far fan goodwill can go before they have to do something else. To me, that time is now. Persona 4 has ceased to become an offshoot of Shin Megami Tensei; Shin Megami Tensei is starting to feel like a big offshoot of Persona 4, and that's not cool.
But for now? Persona 4: Dancing All Night is an above-average foray into rhythm gaming, and a messy but admirable attempt to crash visual novels into that genre. Despite the lack of content, it's still worth it for fans of the original game, but feels like the death knells of Atlus milking their cash cow throughout the whole package.
Honestly? I'm starting to be glad Persona 3 wasn't as popular, as I'd feel much more upset if this is what that franchise came to...