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Persona 4: Dancing All Night
Developer: Dingo Inc.
Release Date: 06/25/15
As weird as it might seem at first glance, the idea of a Persona 4 rhythm game isn’t all that out of place. The aesthetic of the game is steeped in mod culture, and the color schemes and artistic styles are evocative of the 60’s and 70’s to an extent. Further, especially in Persona 4 Golden and the Arena games, the player has been exposed quite a bit to the idol world Rise Kujikawa lives in, and there was even a concert scene at one point, so it’s not a huge step to imagine the cast wanting/needing to learn how to dance for one reason or another from that point. That said, it’s one thing to imagine the idea, but it’s an entirely different thing to pull it off. Cramming the cast into a dancing game is fine, but it’s not going to impress fans who are used to extensive visual novel-sized storylines in their side-story games, and crafting a game that fits into the continuity of the world and makes sense of the “everyone dances now” concept can be charitably described as a Herculean task. Well, the good news is, Persona 4: Dancing All Night mostly works as a rhythm game, and fans will absolutely love how much attention it pays to its source material, as it’s very much a port that acts as a rhythm-based love letter to its fanbase. The bad news, however, is that it’s got a few significant hiccups to it, some of which are notably more problematic than others, and while there’s still time for Atlus US to address some of the more concerning issues before the game releases stateside, it’s still going to be an odd experience if nothing else.
So there is a narrative to the game, but as I don’t speak or read Japanese, I can’t comment on it to the extent of its quality of writing. What I can infer, however, is as such. There are two concurrent narratives going on here; the first is that Rise has apparently drafted the gang into assisting her with some sort of dance number for show, which turns into the gang defeating Shadows that are abducting pop idols into the TV World for some reason, while the second focuses on Kanamin losing her pop group, Kanamin’s Kitchen, and having to deal with that… and her own general insecurity. The concept is fine enough, though for a game that’s spent so much time advertising itself with Rise and Kanamin front-and-center, the actual game is basically about how rad Yu Narukami is, which is… fine, if a bit sad in context. It’s especially sad how little Kanamin matters to the plot, though; aside from about ten minutes in the beginning and the final hour of the plot, her entire plotline is basically very much about her just doing stuff, and even in English it’d probably be cute and nothing else. It’s also kind of goofy that, according to research, the game takes place after the ending of Persona 4 Golden, because that basically means… everyone went back to looking like they did in the first place, and nothing really changed. The game probably explains this somewhat, but it’s still kind of weird with no context. Play-wise, the game offers you the ability to run through the story mode (which is basically similar to the Persona 4 Arena story modes), jump into Free Play to take on songs at one of four difficulties, and the option to buy new gear for characters or check out what you’ve unlocked in your collection. There’s enough to do here to keep you busy for a while, and while it doesn’t have the depth of the Hatsune Miku Vita games, it does well enough for itself that fans will have plenty to do with it.
The visuals in P4D are interesting and pretty high quality for a Vita title, and since this is basically the first time we’re seeing high quality renders of the Persona 4 cast in 3D, that in and of itself is pretty cool. The character models are well-animated and look exactly how you’d expect them to, and while some of their costumes might have minor clipping issues, on the whole they move and animate really well. The dancing animations themselves can be a bit odd at first, though it bears noting that the dancing seems to mix standard Western dance style with Para Para dancing, and each character has their own “style,” which has the end result of making some dancers look weird or poor. Once you get used to them and understand the thematic reason for the dance styles (IE, Kanji is a roughneck so he has a violent dance style, Yukiko incorporates traditional fan-dancing movements, and so on) it all really works. The environments are also equal parts believable and surreal, featuring a good mix between normal stages and studios alongside Shadow World stages featuring Shadows and such in the background who bop along to the music. Aurally, the soundtrack is mostly composed of music from the franchise with a couple of brand-new, exclusive tracks thrown in, totaling twenty seven tracks in the core game (along with a bunch of released and planned DLC), making for a decent mix of tunes. The voice work is generally fine; while I tend to prefer the US dub cast for this franchise, the Japanese voices are quite solid, and there’s a lot of voice work, between the storyline and the random dialogue during dances that give the game some real personality. It’ll be interesting to see how this works in the Western release, but so far, it’s got some real aural personality to it that’s enjoyable even if you can’t understand it.
Let’s Dancing! (Discotech Remix)
P4D uses something of a unique rhythm game setup, mixing familiar concepts from other games into a formula that’s fairly interesting, at least in theory. Mechanically, the game follows the DDR formula of setting up a goal line and having inputs soar toward those set goals. You’re given a circular input goal line along the left and right sides of the screen, along with input markers for the Up, Left and Down D-pad (on the left) and the Triangle, Circle and X buttons (on the right). Starred notes will sail from the center of the screen toward one of these six inputs, and you’ll have to press the button at the right time to get a good score; press it too early or late and you’ll get a reduced score, or even miss it entirely, so timing is of the essence. The game also uses specialty notes, such as dual notes that are linked with a purple line and must be pressed in sync, held notes, and a semi-unique “record scratch” circle that requires touch or analog stick input (so it’ll work with the Playstation TV) to trigger. The game is really good about giving you tutorials that explain all of this, fortunately; the default tutorial explains most of the basics, and if you play through the story mode it’ll give you even more in-depth explanations to help you get the basics down, which you can mostly understand even in Japanese. This bodes well in general for the game’s Western release, but if you’re the sort of person who wants to dance right now, worry not; everything you need to know can be picked up pretty easily and with minimal problems.
Of course, if this were all the game had to offer, it’d be pretty shallow, so there’s a good bit more to really latch onto, which you get through repeated play. For one thing, there’s Fever Time. Essentially, some of the scratch rings that pass by will say “FEVER!” in rainbow colors instead of appearing in their normal blue color, and if you can trigger three of them, it’ll fill up the Fever meter at the top of the screen. Fever Time will be triggered at set points during the song you’re playing if you’ve filled the bar, which accomplish two things: first, they give you a chance to earn a whole lot of extra points for good performances, and second, they’ll bring in your backup dancer if your score is high enough for a duet dance. Songs are also graded via a scoring system that appears at the top of the screen to indicate how well you’re doing, based on your performance and the difficulty level. In essence, it appears as five colorful sprites, and if they’re green or rainbow colored, you’re doing well, but if they’re any other color, you won’t pass that particular song. If you mess up several notes in a row they’ll turn from white to yellow to red before failing you out entirely, with the amount you have to fail varying based on difficulty level. You can raise the success rank by successfully nailing down note timing and combos; only PERFECT or GREAT (nearly perfect) hits will continue a combo, but GOOD (fairly off) hits will at least count for SOMETHING, while MISS means you failed outright and docks points. This is a fairly forgiving system, so for those who find the Hatsune Miku games way too hard, this might be a better choice to ease into rhythm games if nothing else, and fans should find it to be a bit more merciful all in all.
Playing through the Story Mode essentially presents most of the songs to you, but there’s also a Free Mode that you can jump into for a bit more variety in your dancing. Free Mode allows you to choose from one of four difficulties (three are unlocked by default, the fourth by buying every modifier item in the shop) based on your skill level, and the higher the difficulty, the harder the note arrangement and the better you’ll have to perform to pass. Free Mode also lets you customize your play options a bit, however, so that, depending on how well (or poorly) you play, you can still make progress, and so that you can set up dances with whatever partner you wish. Each song has a set primary dancer that cannot be changed, but you can unlock up to five (so far) backup dancers, who will pop up during Fever Time for some additional variety; essentially, it means you can set up your favorite characters together (sometimes) to dance to a song if you want. You can also change their costumes and eyewear from the selection options as well, if you’d like, so you can set your favorite costumes (and there are a whole lot, honestly) however you want. Most of this content is locked up from the start, and you’ll have to devote a bit of time to unlocking it all.
To break it all down, characters are unlocked by beating the song on each difficulty (except the highest, which only needs to be done for one song), clearing the story mode, and (in some cases) clearing one specific song. Costumes and eyewear, however, are purchased from Tanaka’s shop with money earned by completing songs, either in the story or Free Mode. You can also buy items from him that either make songs more or less difficult, which can be turned on or off from the customization options before each song. What this means is actually pretty interesting in context: in short, if you are incredibly good at the game, you can use the combination of higher difficulties (which pay out more money) and game modifiers (which improve payouts) to unlock everything in record time. However, if you are incredibly bad at the game, you can grind out the easy songs to unlock all of the Power Ups and shop items, then use the Power Ups to unlock all the difficulty based content at no profit (since almost all Power Ups reduce your payout). This is one of the few cases where I’ve seen a rhythm game basically say, “Here, it’s okay if you’re not very good, we’ve got you covered,” and for Persona 4 fans who are terrible at rhythm games, it’s actually a pretty good inclusion.
Let’s Dancing! (Dubstep Discotech Remix)
You can clear out the story mode in about an hour and a half if you fast-forward the dialogue, or about ten hours if you watch everything through to the end, so fans of the franchise plot will love this when it’s translated, if nothing else. Completing everything the game has to offer, however, will probably set you back around forty to fifty hours, give or take. There are a whole lot of costumes available for everyone save Kanamin, Nanako and Margaret that you can unlock with your cash, which will require a good amount of time spent playing through the songs, and completing each song on each difficulty, whether you use Power Ups to do so or not, will take a good amount of time. There are also a pretty decent amount of Trophies to unlock, and while the game doesn’t have any supremely challenging Trophies in it, those that are here will take you a bit of time to unlock at least, so you’ll be working for that Platinum. The game also has over a month’s worth of DLC lined up in Japan, meaning that (since it will all almost certainly make it stateside) there will be plenty of content to download and play with, and with some of it being free DLC in Japan (and likely so in the US), even those who don’t want to spend anything extra on the game will find that there’s plenty to keep you interested in P4D if you love the Persona 4 cast or have a major love for rhythm games.
Having said that, let’s be clear here: it’s absolutely no secret that I love Persona 4 as a franchise. I’ve written more about Persona 4 than probably anything else on this site, excepting possibly Danganronpa or Corpse Party, and I can easily say Persona 4 Golden is one of my top ten favorite games, ever. I say this because, in theory, the idea of a Persona 4 dancing game is awesome, hence importing the game three months before its US release, and I’m still basically going to buy the US version day of release, because I’m clearly not very bright. The point is, I told you that so I can tell you this: unless you are a fairly big fan of Persona 4 or rhythm games, you are GOING to get tired of this, and quick, before it justifies its cost to you.
First off, the game advertises about twenty seven songs onboard, but it’s more accurate to say that there are nineteen unique songs and eight remixes, not counting the DLC, which is…not great; both of the Vita Hatsune Miku games have notably more content, for example, and they’re older releases. It’s not a question of technical limitations (both being Vita games), developer experience (Dingo made the first three Hatsune Miku games on PSP) or size (P4D is a good bit smaller than P4G). It’s also not an issue of song volume, since I have two discs full of Persona 4 songs from Atlus themselves, not counting Golden, Q or anime specific songs, so there’s plenty of content to draw from; “Light the Fire Up in the Night,” “I’ll Face Myself,” “A New World Fool,” or “The Almighty,” probably would’ve fit in just fine, off the top of my head. This becomes a further issue because, with a dearth of songs (twenty seven) and a breadth of characters to incorporate (ten), most characters get to star in two songs, save for Yu (six) and Nanako (three), and with no option to change lead dancer, unless you really love Yu Narukami, you’re almost certainly going to feel like something’s missing. Ditto backup dancers; while everyone gets a turn with everyone else, the pairings are very odd as to who gets priority, and many pairings only pop up twice total, so, again, whatever fan sentiment was gauged here (apparently Japan loves Yu and Kanji together) is unbalanced and weird. Also, the mechanics, while mostly fine, could’ve used tuning (IE allowing customization of how to trigger record scratches) and there’s a bug where all speech just stops playing after a while for no obvious reason until you close and reopen the game, which will probably be patched out before US release, but here we are and there it is.
Also, before we wrap this up, let’s talk about how Atlus is handling the DLC at this point, or more specifically, how Atlus US needs to not handle the DLC. At present, the DLC is spread well into August, which seems like it makes sense; it gives the game an extra month and a half lifespan it wouldn’t have otherwise, right? Well, no. First off, while we don’t know the prices for the Adachi and Marie DLC, we do know the expected prices of the remaining DLC, which totals four song packs and two solo songs (TrueStory and Never More), nine costume sets (though the Lawson set may not make it here), and three accessory sets. Put simply, this amounts to ten thousand, four hundred yen, or about eighty five dollars, which, if the Adachi and Marie packs total another fifteen bucks, is double the cost of the core game in DLC. That is insane, and even if you buy the Limited Edition, that’s only going to save you about fifteen bucks on the DLC, so you’re still paying seventy bucks on DLC if you want everything. Further, of the five DLC songs released so far, all of them are done to music videos, not dancing, so the core benefit of the game itself is basically gone at that point. Oh, yeah, and the anime songs that are being released are the intro and ending spot versions, so if you’d have been fine with a music video if it meant playing “Key Plus Words,” nope, you’re getting two minute-and-a-half long sequences for five bucks. This, by the by, also doesn’t take into account the fact that, as of now, all of the costume packs are 100KB large, which is code for “the content is already in the game and this just unlocks it”, which, given that several packs cost upwards of ten bucks, is… well. It’s atrocious, is the key point here, and if anything screams of Sega’s influence on Atlus, it’s probably that. The one positive here is that, while Atlus can’t meaningfully modify the contents of the DLC, they can either reduce the prices to a point where the DLC isn’t reaching EA numbers and compress the release dates a bit, so here’s hoping they do anything but what Atlus Japan did, because as it stands, this is a sour DLC strategy, and not one that’s going to make any fans.
The bottom line is this: I love Persona 4: Dancing All Night, and if you love rhythm games and Persona 4, you will too, but it’s far too limited to appeal to anyone outside of that group; with a limited setlist and character mix, casual fans will find their attention diverted elsewhere sooner rather than later. It’s a shame too, as the plot seems serviceable enough, the game looks and sounds pretty damn good, and the core mechanics that make up the rhythm system are honestly fairly inventive on their own. The game works well enough on both the Vita and Playstation TV, and between the story, Free Mode, unlockables and Trophies there’s easily thirty or forty hours of content here if you’re dedicated, with possibly more if you aim to pick up the DLC. That said, the game rarely focuses on anyone but Yu Narukami after a lot of Rise and Kanamin lead-in, there’s a dearth of original songs here for no obvious reason, and given an experienced developer and publisher, the lack of variety in setlist or character swapping hurts the product a good amount for no obvious reason. Some minor technical issues also mar the experience, and the DLC setup in Japan is atrocious, featuring a total cost that’s likely to be double that of the game for content that’s underdeveloped at best and included in the game (or in the massive day-one patch) at worst, though Atlus US has the chance to correct that prior to launch (one hopes). If you absolutely love Persona 4 or rhythm games, then P4D is absolutely the game for you, and you’ll have a lot of fun with it, make no mistake. For those who are only casual fans of Persona 4 or are expecting another Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f, you won’t find enough to keep you busy here, unfortunately, and given the pedigree involved, more’s the pity because of it.
Short Attention Span Summary:
What could’ve been an awesome rhythm game ends up a fun novelty at most, as while Persona 4: Dancing All Night is cute and fun in all the ways it should be, a dearth of content and a poor DLC plan make it hard to recommend to any but the diehard genre or franchise fans. What’s here is certainly promising, between the lengthy story mode, the outstanding visuals and audio quality, and the surprisingly engaging and easy to understand rhythm mechanics that generally work once you pick them up. The game works fine whether you’re playing on the Vita or Playstation TV, and there’s a good amount of content between the story, Free Mode, unlockables and Trophies to give you a lengthy experience, whether you’re skilled or poor at rhythm games. However, despite the marketing’s focus on Rise and Kanamin the game is almost entirely the Yu Narukami (and friends) Show, again, there’s a real lack of original songs here for no apparent reason, and the lack of setlist and character variety (or swapping) hurts a lot, especially since both the developer and publisher are skilled enough to know better. There are also some minor technical hiccups that could be patched out before US release, and a horrid DLC structure that should be, as Japan’s DLC features a total expense that’s nearly twice the price of the game all told, and is at best kind of weak and at worst included in the game already, which will almost certainly cause a lot of Sega blaming if it isn’t fixed. If you’re the sort of fan who loves Persona 4 and rhythm games, like I am, you’ll find plenty of reason to justify picking up P4D, and you probably should; everyone else, though, may want to wait on this one a bit, because as it stands now, it’s got a lot of great ideas, but the execution isn’t what it should be.