If any popular role-playing series were to spin off into rhythm games, Persona would always be the best pick. It's known for its funky visuals, slick and stylish narratives, and unforgettable soundtracks. That's part of what made Persona 4 such a prime candidate for transforming into a music game. Persona 4: Dancing All Night took everything players loved about Persona 4 and churned out a miniature Persona adventure that felt like a new entry opting to supplant dancing for Shadow battles. It was a first for Persona, and it immediately captured the hearts of devoted fans around the world.
The arrival of Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight was met with much rejoicing for this reason – Persona 3 and Persona 5 would get the same chance as Persona 4 enthusiasts to see their favorite characters breaking it down and shaking what their mamas gave 'em. Unfortunately, they don't share the same kind of glitz or substance their predecessor exhibited. The result of taking the same formula from before and stripping things away has resulted in a watered-down affair that's frankly disappointing.
Don't just stand there, bust a move
Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight are two halves of one whole, complementing each other in various ways but creating a hollow whole. Like Pokémon Red and Blue, they feature the same basic makeup: a quick story-based introduction, Dancing mode, Social mode, and Collection options for when you want to see what you've unlocked. The games are sold as the Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection for $99, which includes the original game, Persona 4: Dancing All Night, however both are sold separately for $59.99 as well. I tried both games for this review, on PlayStation 4 over the Vita edition (yes, they're still eking out games for Vita).
The premise is simple: Choose a song, taken from Persona 3 or Persona 5's extensive soundtracks, and start dancing your heart out. The top, left, and down arrows as well as the triangle, circle, and X buttons on the PlayStation controller correspond to star notes that come out from the center of the screen. You need to hit each button on the beat and flick the analog stick when a "scratch" ring reaches the outline of the layout. Occasionally you'll get a "Fever" bonus time, where typically additional characters join you to dance. Your character dances along to the music while other characters shout out some pretty nonsensical phrases.
Most of the time you can't really spend much time watching the characters dancing, but there's some decent choreography to speak of. None of it really matches the music per se, save for special stages that include boy band and girl group dances, so it's a bit odd, but the individual moves look fine. Unfortunately, the stages themselves across both games are a bit uninspired.
They're taken from both games, so you might be dancing in the middle of Shibuya for Persona 5 or in the middle of the battlefield before a decisive battle in Persona 3. They all pale in comparison to that of, say, Persona 4: Dancing All Night, which put together various stages where your Shadow audience looked on while you performed and you even got a riff from your Persona by the end of your performance. They're not really even mentioned in the game much (if at all, that I noticed) and it's pretty sad to see such an integral part of Persona in general glossed over here.
As far as other dance backdrops, some of the sets are so absolutely lazy it hurts that you'd spend $60 for one game. There are a couple of tracks that are, granted, songs that play during the games' credit sequences, but to completely omit the character models here in favor of rolling the actual credits is a bizarre decision. The same goes for a few tracks where static images of the characters roll past. What would have been difficult about using the characters themselves again?
Dance like there's no tomorrow
P3D and P5D feature the same narrative (if you can call it that), with the cast of both games having woken up in their corresponding Velvet Room area. Either Elizabeth (P3D) or Caroline and Justine (P5D) will escort the protagonist and friends through a dance competition. The Velvet Room's guides have made a bet with their sister in each game that their dance crew is the "most exceptional," so it's your job to bust a move in the most exquisite fashion possible. That's about it. There's no mega-interesting reason for why you're dancing, or why you should even care about doing well beyond your own personal satisfaction.
The games aren't considered canon, however, because it's repeated several times over that the Persona characters "won't remember a thing" when they wake up from their time in the Velvet Room, so it doesn't matter if they can't dance. It's all to blow off steam, as the game's hostesses attest, and it's for one night only. While that explains why they've been transported to the room in the first place, it doesn't really make sense in the grand scheme of things – who cares whose dance crew is better?
I know what you're saying right now, though: It's a dance game, who cares? As long as the music is good, it doesn't matter at all what the characters are there to do! And you'd be correct in saying this, except one of the major draws for Persona 4: Dancing All Night was its extensive story mode. I knew going into these games that the story had been swapped out for some sort of "replacement" that it certainly sounded like the developers took tone a suitable introduction.
Instead, the only snippets of story you can eke out are between songs in the "Social" area, where you can speak to various members of the cast for short vignettes that reveal, well, nothing. There's no substance to these brief interactions save for what you unlock for viewing them. You'll get costume unlocks, song modifiers, and other surprises after you open certain events up. You can do this by completing enough songs on a particular difficulty to satisfy requirements, changing out costumes, and completing a variety of other objectives. Once you've completed all the links (or all that you care to) there's really nowhere to go from there. You can go back and play through the songs on a higher difficulty, but there's little reason to do so once you've exhausted the entire catalogue.
There's a decent selection of songs in P3D and P5D, with 30+ songs each game, including the extras you can unlock. Unfortunately, many of them are remixes of the same song. For instance, you've got the original "Burn My Dread" from Persona 3 as well as a remix of it, or the popular "Last Surprise" from Persona 5 and the corresponding remix. The only thing is, people naturally want to play the version they're familiar with, from the game, and not a lukewarm remix that doesn't compare to the original in any feasible way. This is what you're relegated to as you unlock new tracks. You've got to play through the lesser songs to get to the good ones, and at some point you realize, well, there aren't many good ones. I found many of the "iconic" tunes I had enjoyed in Persona 5's extensive soundtrack missing, which was a massive letdown.
It's extremely unfortunate that the same amount of effort and polish wasn't put into P3D and P5D, because the basic template for a fantastic dance game is here. All that really needs to be changed are a few simple things: a new narrative mode patched in to add some substance for the price, new (free) songs, better visuals, and things of that nature. It's unlikely any of this will happen, however. So for $60 per game, it's tough to recommend either one of them, even as a hardcore, ride-or-die Persona fan who's been eagerly salivating over both titles since they were both announced.
If you're aching to go dancing with your favorite Persona characters, Persona 4: Dancing All Night remains the best choice for now. If you want to listen to Persona 3 or Persona 5 songs instead, opt to borrow these games if possible instead of investing in them for now.
- As stylish as ever, true to the Persona/Shin Megami Tensei series.
- Familiar characters and songs will appeal to franchise devotees.
- Rhythm game mechanics are well-crafted and simple to learn.
- Fun variety of unlockables to customize your dancers with.
- Just over 30 songs in each game, many of which are remixes of songs already unlocked.
- Story Mode replaced by uninspired, non-canon "Social Links."
- Lazy level design for some tracks, including credit sequences and static images.
- Bereft of many of the interesting elements that made Persona 4: Dancing All Night memorable.
- Missing key songs from both games' soundtracks.