Persona 4: Dancing All Night is not, as I worried, blood squeezed from a stone, and that's the first of its many surprises.
Here's another: From start to finish, Persona 4: Dancing All Night nails the feel of classic PSOne-era rhythm games. It doesn't just emulate the spirit of DanceDanceRevolution and Bust a Groove, it improves on that spirit. Perhaps its biggest surprise is this: Persona 4 is one of my favorite games (and, by unlikely extension, game franchises) ever, but I still think I'd get a lot out of by Persona 4: Dancing All Night without that history.
The beauty of Persona 4: Dancing All Night's choreographic gameplay lies in its simplicity. Notes fly out of the center of the screen toward six corresponding inputs: up, left and down on your left thumb, and Triangle, Circle and Cross on your right. You hit them in time with the music, sometimes hitting two simultaneously, sometimes holding them in. You can also flick either thumbstick in time with rings that expand on-screen, although this additional input layer is totally optional — you could skip them all and not fail out of a song.
Using items, you can find your own personal difficulty threshold
It's perhaps a little too accessible at first; as is the case with a lot of rhythm games, Persona 4: Dancing All Night's core gameplay just feels better when it's at its most challenging. Each new difficulty setting introduces new mechanics, and further punishes the slightest slip-ups during a dance.
It can be brutal in that latter regard — I've failed entire performances after missing the last few notes in a song, although it was never frustrating enough to drive me away entirely. That's because of Persona 4: Dancing All Night's most brilliant innovation: It's bolstered by a suite of unlockable items that allow you to modify the difficulty of each song in dozens of little ways.
Items can be switched on before a song to, for example, reduce the blow of missed notes, or keep barely-missed notes from breaking your combo, at the cost of some of your final score and earnings. On the inverse, special modifiers can make the track more difficult, drastically increasing the speed of notes or even rendering all the notes invisible, all the while dramatically increasing your haul should you succeed.
It's a genius, totally modular system that lets you find the settings you prefer. I've been playing the game's unlockable hardest difficulty with a few forgiving modifiers turned on, giving me the rush of playing at lightspeed without the fear of instant failure should I miss a couple of beats. Using items, you can find your own personal difficulty threshold, which will inevitably, satisfyingly increase the more you play.
Even without its license, Persona 4: Dancing All Night has a genuinely fun rhythm game design. However, an understanding of Persona 4 certainly helps make heads or tails of Dancing All Night's convoluted premise — which is, admittedly, pure fan service.
But man is it good fan service.
The original members of the Investigation Team, fresh off the case of the Inaba serial killer, have been recruited by pop idol member Rise to perform as backup dancers in her comeback show. During their intensive dance training, other idols scheduled to perform are abducted to the Shadow World. In order to save them, our heroes must — brace yourselves — dance away the inhibitions of hostile, shadowy spectators while unraveling the identity of their abductor.
Yes, it's weird, and on paper, the setup bends over backwards to justify why these former dungeon crawlers are dancing all of a sudden. But the premise, as silly as it may be, is painstakingly developed over hours of visual novel-style cutscenes told from multiple, cleverly overlapped perspectives.
If you know the franchise, it's probably no surprise that the strength of Persona 4: Dancing All Night's story mode are the Investigation Team themselves. They're spectacular characters, with depth far beyond most of the comparatively single-faceted newcomers. The relationships between Yu, Yukiko, Chie, Yosuke and the rest aren't explored quite as deeply as the original RPG — it'd need to run for a few dozen more hours to attempt that — but each one of them has some satisfying beats.
Speaking of satisfying beats, Persona 4 Dancing All Night's soundtrack is certifiably dope, regardless of your familiarity with the source material. Most of the tracks have been expertly remixed, so much so that the multiple remixes of the same tracks can stand on their own. Dancing All Night has a jukebox mode, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I've used it more than once.
Though the game's strong suit are its characters, they can be a bit chatty at inopportune times. Characters will talk to each other during songs, sometimes repeating a line multiple times in a single performance. One character actually does a 3-count during a song, and not to the beat of the music. Every button prompt and scratch makes a customizable noise, too, which kind of ruins the song playing underneath. All of that can (and absolutely should) be turned off as soon as possible.
One frustrating setting you cannot tweak is how poorly the online leaderboards are integrated into the game. They're squirreled away under several layers of submenus, far under a "Collection" category where it doesn't really belong. Checking your scores against the world's is clunky every single time, and they're so deeply buried, you could be forgiven for not knowing there were online leaderboards in Persona 4: Dancing All Night at all.
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