NOT QUITE FEELING THE VIBE
Well, this game happened. The latest chapter in the long-running Persona 4 sub-sub-series is here, and it’s a rhythm game. It just so happens that Persona 4 and rhythm games are two of my favorite things ever, so this should be right up my alley, right? I thought so too. But after spending a lot of time on the portable dance floor, I’ve been left feeling more conflicted than I have been about any other game I’ve played in recent memory. It’s hard to express my true feelings about Persona 4: Dancing All Night, so a fellow writer here at MONG suggested I do it the way this game would want me to…
(Well, this isn’t a video review. You’ll have to imagine the dancing, but I have the next best thing. Hit the music and rap along!)
Many rhythm games on the Vita, some acclaimed
Clicky buttons, nice touchscreen
Though the speakers? Kinda lame
“P4D” is the name, its soundtrack aflame
But only near thirty tracks that all sound the same
It’s messed up
The timing and visuals mistuned
Just confuse rhythm noobs
New to this ballgame
You’ll need a third eye
To watch the whole circle frame
Notes after notes
Middle finger from Aaron Dobbe
This plot’s still a bit dark
Bizarre, so intriguing
From possessed livestreaming
Investigation Team’s battling
Against these demons
But they can’t use their weapons? Gotta dance like Yeezus!
Characters make the plot go ’round
(but who’s the best girl?)
(but the fans all disagree with me)
…Okay, let’s unpack that a bit. Persona 4: Dancing All Night follows Persona 4’s Investigation Team once again, picking up after the ending of Persona 4 Golden. Pop idol Rise Kujikawa is ready to make her comeback performance by singing at the “Love Meets Bonds” festival, but she has something special in mind – she’s asked her fellow Investigation Team members to dance backup during her performance. But when the Investigation Team arrives at Rise’s studio, they hear of a rumor about a cursed video on the Love Meets Bonds website that snatches people away when they view it. And not long after, members of the idol group Kanamin Kitchen inexplicably vanish.
When the Investigation Team… investigates the disappearances, they find themselves in another supernatural world filled with malevolent Shadows. This world has one law: “nobody hurts nor gets hurt.” No violence allowed. What’s to do in this situation? Defeat the Shadows through the power of dance!
It’s not as dumb as it sounds. Seriously! While I didn’t find the overall plot to be anything special, Atlus did a commendable job writing the game so the dancing made sense. The game is also well-woven into the Persona canon, with nods and callbacks to both 3 and 4. The new central character, Kanami Mashita (who was mentioned by name in Persona 4, but never seen until now) is a wonderful and worthy addition to the main cast, and probably my favorite newcomer to the series since the original P4. And, thank God, the character dialogue is the most well-written of all the recent Persona spinoffs. (The characters actually sound like people again, rather than meme dispensers!)
The game’s story mode is set up much like Persona 4 Arena Ultimax: visual-novel segments punctuated by occasional dance sequences locked to the lowest difficulty level. It’s a very laid-back experience, one that works particularly well for this game because the gameplay sequences are more substantial than Arena’s and the wordiness is dialed back quite a bit too. All in all, it’ll take you about 10 hours to get through the campaign, which is the perfect length for this kind of thing. I enjoyed it!
But then, I cracked my knuckles, sat down, and got ready to play the “real” game: the Free Dance mode. Here, you just pick a song, pick a difficulty level, and dance. During a dance, notes will scroll from the center of the screen out toward a ring of timing indicators emblazoned with images of the Vita’s buttons: the left side uses the d-pad, and the right side uses the face buttons. When a note overlaps a timing indicator, you tap the corresponding button. Blue “scratch” rings ask you to bump either of the analog sticks when they cross the outer ring, but they’re optional – which is genius. This adds a bit of risk-reward when the charts get tough: you can hit the scratch rings to boost your combo and your life gauge, but because doing so takes your attention away from the other notes, you might choose to play it safe and ignore them.
This is all pretty good, but there are a couple nasty problems with the gameplay. First, the visual indicators are misleading. The game asks you to hit the notes when they completely overlap the timing indicator (like any other rhythm game), but in reality, doing so will give you “GREAT” judgments instead of “PERFECT”. The proper timing is actually to hit the note when it’s halfway overlapping the timing indicator – an uncharacteristically sloppy design mistake from Atlus. But even if you adjust to that, there’s a second, even worse sin – the timing windows are slightly late. Staying perfectly on the beat will still net you PERFECTs, but it favors late timing more than early timing. Playing the game thus becomes an unpleasant battle between your eyes (which are lying to you) and your sense of rhythm (which isn’t entirely trustworthy either).
Even if it weren’t for these technical issues, the rhythm game UI is poorly designed. Having notes scroll from the center to the outside is fine, but said notes are so small and the timing indicators so far apart that it becomes nearly impossible to relate the timing of the notes to one another, especially if they’re on opposite sides of the screen. I play a lot of rhythm games, and I love it when they’re hard enough to provide a challenge. But in P4D, when I miss a note, I feel like it wasn’t my fault – I just didn’t understand what was being asked of me. That isn’t fun. The whole thing just sacrifices playability on the altar of doing something different.
The failures of the gameplay are all the more frustrating because the game looks and sounds divine. The Persona 4 cast is looking better than ever, with all-new high-fidelity character models that almost evoke the look of the upcoming Persona 5. Each character’s personality shines through in their own unique choreography: Yukiko elegantly and gracefully twirls, Chie mixes kung-fu techniques into her dance, Kanji powerfully flails around, and Nanako just continues to be heart-meltingly adorable. Watching the characters dance is always rewarding – in fact, there are some songs I’ve replayed multiple times for the choreography alone.
The game’s soundtrack is really good, but that’s pretty obvious, given that it’s made up of tracks from Persona 4 and its spin-off media. That said, the soundtrack suffers from a severe lack of variety. Most of the tracks from Persona 4 have the “original” version (rearranged), then on top of that, a remix by a prominent Japanese EDM artist. Some tracks even have two remixes! This doesn’t get irritating in the story mode, because the dances are spread out pretty far apart. But when playing for high scores, the reuse of tracks makes the somewhat lean soundtrack feel even smaller that it actually is. It’s not as if they exhausted all the music in the P4 canon – I would have loved to see “I’ll Face Myself” or “Long Way” – but at least there are gems like “sky’s the limit” and “Break Out Of…” available as paid DLC if you’re so inclined. I feel bad criticizing the soundtrack, because the individual songs are mostly awesome. It just doesn’t hold up to repeated play.
The Verdict: 6.5 out of 10
I really want to like this game. As Persona 4 fanservice, it’s great. As another adventure for the Investigation Team, it’s pretty good. As a rhythm game? It’s got some fundamental problems that serve as a big wet blanket covering all the parts that are legitimately joyful and fun. I played the game until I was getting top ranks on the highest difficulty level, hoping and praying that something would “click” and I’d start enjoying the gameplay… but it just never happened. It’s passable, but not much more than that.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Twitter for a cute picture of an alpaca.