Persona 4: Dancing All Night is the latest spin-off of the venerable RPG classic from 2008, Persona 4, and as the title suggests, this isn’t an RPG, but a rhythm game. It’s not a terrible concept at all: the Persona titles are routinely praised for their excellent soundtracks, and other beloved RPG series have found great success in exploring the music-game genre--namely, Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy. Unfortunately, the marriage between “Persona” and “rhythm game” found here is a rocky one at best.
When you jump into the game, you find a very unusual layout. The image of the characters dancing their hearts out hog a good chunk of screen real estate in the center, while circles representing the up, left, down, triangle, circle, and X buttons line the left and right edges of the screen. As star-shaped beats spin out from the screen’s center to the rhythm of the music, you tap those keys as they line up with their corresponding button signal.
While the basics will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played rhythm games before, the layout makes gameplay feel messy. Unlike a game such as Rock Band, where all of your notes are grouped on a single, easy-to-read area of the screen, the notes in Dancing All Night flow out in two directions.
You have to simultaneously keep track of the left-side and right-side of the screen, all while a big distracting image in the middle vies for your attention. The images in the center can get so busy that they distract from being able to see the beats you need to hit as they flow outwards. It’s a confusing and frustrating layout that leads to a lot of missed notes. The track planning also feels somewhat off: actions like holds and simultaneous multi-button presses seem to be tossed in randomly, rather than to emphasize key points of the song.
Once you’ve unlocked every costume and bought every item, Dancing All Night isn’t fun enough to justify challenging yourself and replaying songs for higher scores.
At least those visuals in the middle of the screen are eye-catching. The Persona 4 cast has never looked better than they do now, and they all come with a variety of costumes and accessories you can deck them out with. (My personal favorite is Teddy in the Igor outfit). But once you’ve unlocked every costume and bought every item, Dancing All Night isn’t fun enough to justify challenging yourself and replaying songs for higher scores.
All of the various Persona spin-offs are known for having lengthy, dialogue-heavy story modes as one of the key selling points of the game. Dancing All Night is no exception, delivering players a story set some unspecified time after the events of Persona 4. The idol singer Rise has invited everyone to join her onstage at the Love Meets Bonds Festival event, where she’ll be performing alongside another up-and-coming singing group of young girls called Kanamin Kitchen.
There are some strange things happening as the event looms, however: rumors of a cursed video on the event’s website are circulating, people are bringing up an idol who committed suicide years earlier, and the lead singer of Kanamin Kitchen, Kanami Mashita, is having unexplained headaches and blackouts. When her group members vanish under mysterious circumstances, it’s up to the Investigation Team to battle through the Midnight Stage – a realm filled with Shadows that can only be spoken to through the emotions of dancing.
Dancing All Night plays this ridiculous premise completely straight - to its detriment. What results is a story that feels less like Persona and more like an after-school special.
That all sounds pretty silly, right? It’s hard to take a premise of “overpower evil with the magic of dance!” seriously. Unlike Persona Q, which embraced and ran with its frequent goofiness, Dancing All Night plays this ridiculous premise completely straight - to its detriment. What results is a story that feels less like Persona and more like an after-school special.
The narrative tries to hit many of the same themes the original Persona 4 did so well – forging bonds with others and being comfortable with yourself – but it does so in the most preachy, hamfisted way possible. New characters, like Kanami’s bandmates, are introduced and put in peril, but given so little screen time that it’s hard to emphasize with them and their plight. An entire sub-story featuring Dojima and Nanako is present, but ultimately feels like a vehicle to introduce fan-favorite Nanako as a dancer. Given the standard of writing and characterization this series has frequently delivered in the past, Dancing All Night’s story is an utter disappointment.
I realized that I wasn’t enjoying Dancing All Night as much as I’d hoped when I first finished playing through a song in Story Mode as Yukiko. Her Persona, the elegant Japanese flower blossom figure Konohana Sakuya, suddenly materialized a saxophone and started wailing on it. “Are you serious?” I said to my Vita in disbelief as Sakuya bopped around. In a game universe where people get sucked into TV worlds and thinking, feeling robots are a thing that exists, my suspension of disbelief was finally shattered. It never recovered.
The only thing that really feels fun is playing dress-up with characters and their various outfits.
In addition to the story mode, there’s also Free Dance mode to explore, which lets you play individual tracks to your liking on one of three difficulty levels. As you complete songs, you unlock new tracks and earn cash to spend in the in-game shop for helpful items and character costumes. There are a lot of great tracks from Persona 4 and various other spin-offs in the mix, along with several remixes of varying (usually not very good) quality. Despite the presence of some classic Persona 4 tunes, the track list feels rather anemic: there are 26 non-DLC songs, six of which are alternate remixes. The small number of tracks – and the general lack of variety – means you’ll see all Dancing All Night has to offer in terms of music pretty quickly before you have to pay for DLC.
Dancing All Night might have sounded like a fun idea on paper, but it simply doesn’t hold a candle to better portable rhythm games. The story is disappointing, the gameplay is mediocre, and the only thing that really feels fun is playing dress-up with characters and their various outfits. Unfortunately, Dancing All Night is hardly a consolation for those itching for a Persona fix. This is one all-nighter it’s probably OK to sleep through.