The Persona series has taken steps out of its RPG comfort zone before. In recent years, the Investigation Team stepped into the fighting arena and dungeon crawling realms. So the idea of a Persona rhythm game doesn't sound absurd in the least. After all, the Persona games have some upbeat songs and a colorful enough atmosphere to sustain such an idea.
And sure enough, Persona 4: Dancing All Night works pretty well by taking these well-known characters and placing them into a different type of supernatural tale that plausibly fits into their world. They're still the Investigation Team that people have come to recognize, but Dancing All Night feels like a different kind of episode of their strange adventures. And given the Story Mode's presentation, it certainly feels like a full blend of a visual novel and a rhythm game that comes together to deliver a memorably catchy experience.
The story centers around pop star Rise Kujikawa, who's helping prep her friends for an upcoming stage performance. The main pop act, a new group known as Kanamin Kitchen, stumbles onto a cursed video that's plastered onto the event website, like a sinister twist on the old plot of the 2002 film, The Ring. When the members start vanishing, it's up to the Investigation Team to get to the bottom of what's happening.
Over the course of the story, the Investigation Team will hit the mysterious Midnight Stage, a strange world that does not run on violence, meaning Personas cannot fight here. So what does that leave the player with? The power of dance and self-expression. It's remarkable to see what Atlus has pulled off, taking what looks like a laughable premise on the surface and crafting a narrative that actually makes total sense of it in a logical fashion. Without spoiling the major plot points, the idea is indeed to learn to let it all hang loose and dance like no one's watching.
Of course, the trouble here is that the Story Mode tends to drag an awful lot. While the game will automatically save at points, those looking to complete an entire chapter in one sitting will often be sitting for longer than an hour, between text, transitions, loading, cutaways, and (eventually) the gameplay itself. While the dialogue can be sped up, it can still be a slog to sit through.
So how do the rhythm mechanics actually feel? For Vita owners, they should feel remarkably simple to grasp, with the main idea to hit the notes in rhythm with either the Up, Left, Down, Triangle, Circle, or X buttons. There are several note types that require players to tap or hold a button, as well as ones that require simultaneous button presses. On lower difficulties, it's an easy idea to grasp, but going to anything harder requires players to also flick the analog stick whenever a solid ring reverberates towards the circular note bar. That can be a lot tougher, since this doesn't feel very intuitive, making it easy to miss these notes. Add in the lower margin of error and the added intensity of the notes and the degree of difficulty between the Normal and Hard can be a little too much for some players.
This is also a rare instance where the beauty of Persona's art style works against it. With the notes laid out at the edge of the screen, it means all the action is happening at the dead center of the screen. It's easy to get distracted by the moves right in front of you, making it so that notes just fly off the screen completely unseen. This can be brutal in harder difficulties and the challenge of avoiding the on-screen show only gets harder upon hitting a Fever state. Hitting enough notes launches a Fever sequence that has a character's dance partner hit the stage for a duet. This is a cool idea and it's hard not to get jazzed by Chie dancing with Yosuke, but it can ultimately become a distraction.
Worse yet, PlayStation TV owners have the added difficulty of HDTV lag to work against. Input lag is murder in a precision game like this and it can get immensely frustrating to overcome. That's a shame, given that Persona's gorgeous art style is something that just begs to be seen on a larger screen.
Even with a few missteps, the presentation for Persona 4: Dancing All Night is as colorful as it gets and a beauty to behold. The anime art style remains crisp and if there's anything better than seeing the Persona characters in prime form, it's watching them get their groove on. Ultimately, a rhythm game like this is only as strong as its soundtrack, but fortunately for Atlus, there are some truly enjoyable tracks to be found, including a few remixes of some old favorites. All of those earworms can easily be accessed through Free Dance mode, which is good for anyone that just wants a few quick sessions aboard a plane or in line at an amusement park.
It's not the greatest concert you'll ever witness, but Persona 4: Dancing All Night gives a solid performance, one that does its catchy soundtrack proud.
This review is based on a PlayStation Vita code provided by the publisher. Persona 4: Dancing All Night is available across retailers and on the PlayStation Store on September 29, for $49.99. The game is rated T.