Basing the appeal of a creation solely on nostalgia can be a risky business. On the one hand, you’ve got a built-in fanbase that’s ravenous for any and everything you come up with, and that audience doesn’t care what that is as long as you keep giving them more of the characters they love. On the other hand, if you go too far off the rails, you risk alienating your audience and damaging the legacy of the original work to which you’re paying tribute. Persona 4: Dancing All Night is a curious case, because while it’s offered as a sequel to a massive JRPG, it’s no RPG at all, but rather a rhythm game featuring remixed versions of songs from the Persona 4 universe. Obviously we’ve seen successful spinoffs in this series before: the Persona 4 Arena fighting games and the dungeon crawler Persona Q are both excellent representations of their respective genres. But really? A rhythm game?
Even considered in the context of other rhythm games, P4D doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Compared to something like Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, which shipped with more than 170 songs, P4D’s 27-song track list makes it seem downright anemic. Perhaps in an effort to make the experience last longer, Atlus has gone one step weirder: it’s a rhythm game, yes, but it’s a visual novel, too. What are they putting in the corn flakes over there?
Okay, so I’m being a little disingenuous here. Persona 4: Golden is a big bag of nonsense, and it’s still the greatest modern JRPG ever made. Weird genre combinations or not, If Persona 4: Dancing All Night can capture even a fraction of what makes its predecessor so special, it’s worth playing. The question is, can it?
The first thing you need to know is that, even with the slim track selection (boosted by DLC hitting on launch day and beyond), Persona 4: Dancing All Night is a surprisingly robust and replayable rhythm game. It’s split up into two game modes: Free Dance, which lets you play tracks at your leisure, and the meat-and-potatoes Story Mode. Free Dance showcases the game’s simple-to-understand, difficult-to-master rhythm game, which has players pressing combinations of buttons in time with the beat of the music while the cast of Persona 4 dances on screen. Only a small selection of songs is available from the start, though most can be unlocked simply by finishing each successive song (a handful will require you to complete Story Mode.) Like most other rhythm games, it gets exponentially harder the higher the difficulty level, but the rewards are greater as well: every attempt at playing through a song nets you cash to spend on costumes, accessories, and gameplay modifiers, and you’ll be able to buy items faster if you play on higher difficulties. “All Night” difficulty, though? I can’t do it. Seriously, I can only handle hearing Nanako say “I’m sorry, big bro” so many times. It’s not you, little sis, it’s me!
What makes P4D’s rhythm game stand apart from other games in the genre is its assortment of modifiers (found under “Dance Settings” in the pause menu) that change the way songs are played out. There are two types of modifiers: Power Ups and Game Settings. Power Ups mostly serve the same purpose–keeping you in the game if you’re having trouble keeping up with the combos (which is required on higher difficulties)–but Game Settings modifiers make things a lot more interesting. On the simpler end of these modifiers is “Life Reversals,” which simply flips the vertical axis along which notes travel; there are also modifiers which change the speed at which notes travel (“The Slow Life” makes things surprisingly difficult), or make notes disappear during play. My favorite is called “Man’s Whimsy,” which makes notes move in different directions every time you play. Once I’d mastered most songs in Free Dance on Hard difficulty, I put “Life Reversals” and “Man’s Whimsy” on permanently, so it’s a different game no matter how many times I play. Your score and cash payouts increase dramatically with these modifiers on, too, so it’s pretty much a winning situation no matter how you look at it.
You’ll dance in Story Mode, too, but you’ll spend a lot more time doing other things. That’s because Story Mode is a visual novel that has us catching up with beloved characters Yu, Rise, Chie, Yukiko, Yosuke, Kanji, Naoto, and Teddie in a so-crazy-it-works mystery/melodrama about an upcoming music festival called the Love Meets Bonds Fest. Star-turned-regular-high-school student Rise Kujikawa’s ready to get back on the Idol circuit (presumably until she ages out and becomes Yu’s waifu at 23), and she’s invited her friends from Inaba to perform as her backup dancers at the LMB Fest. But before that can happen, the group of friends will have to solve the case of several disappearing idols associated with the festival, along with series newcomer Kanami Mashita. Kanami, who’s an Idol herself, proves a great addition to the cast; in many ways, her adulation of the so-called “Investigation Team” makes her a perfect reflection of the player, especially now that we no longer get to inhabit Yu’s mind.
But the real value of Story Mode is that it gives us another few hours to spend with the characters we love. And what makes these characters so great? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. They’re goofy. They’re awkward. They’re terribly stereotypical. And they’re so earnest about their devotion to each other it’s painful. But they also remind me of a time in life when having fun and being with my friends seemed like the most important thing in the world. When the future seemed wide open, and no matter what, we would be there for each other. I guess what makes spending time with Yu and Rise and friends so great is that I know that life doesn’t really work out that way for most people. I’m not so naïve as all that anymore. And damnit if I don’t miss that sometimes.
So, Persona 4: Dancing All Night might not be the 200 hour role-playing masterpiece that Persona 4: Golden is. But it’s a fun, earnest celebration of everything that made that game so great, and many of its remixed songs are better than the originals (i.e. “NOW I KNOW (Yuu Miyake Remix)” and “Shadow World (ATLUS Kozuka Remix).”) And honestly, even without the upcoming DLC, I’m going to get a heck of a lot more replay out of it than I ever did from P4G. Why? Simple: whenever I have a few minutes to spare, I can drop in and see my old friends. For me, that’s enough.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Persona 4: Dancing All Night is based on final review code provided to us by Atlus. The game is out on Tuesday, September 29th, 2015.