How do you make money with a well-known franchise after its release? In the west, DLC is released to keep a cash flow steady. Often, additional content isn’t worth your money and is something that was cut out of games for a good reason. In Japan, though, many popular titles get spin-offs to extend their life. Beloved Persona JRPG series have been turned into excellent fighting games (Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax) that managed to nail the essence of the original franchise despite a genre change. Now, the cherished stars of Persona 3, 4 and 5 are whisked off to a dance floor. Is there any sense in turning the series into rhythm-based dancing games? Let’s see how far their moves will carry them to.
Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection brings together three rhythm games based on the franchise. Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight are new titles, released for PlayStation Vita and 4 in Japan in the spring that see their Western premiere now, but so far only on PS4. Persona 4: Dancing All Night was released for PlayStation Vita three years ago, and gets its PS4 debut in the collection. And why exactly are the Persona stars suddenly dancing? Well, in Persona 4: Dancing All Night, the guys and gals who solved the Inaba incident are taking a look into a case of a vanishing pop group while acting as background dancers for a gala evening. Elsewhere, Persona 3 and 5 casts suddenly end up in a dream to dance out not only to relieve the stress of their mundane tasks, but also to please the powers that be of the dream world.
Apart from the cast, their associated social events and songs, Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight play identical to each other. You dance through different songs in order to unlock more of them, and by fulfilling different condition while doing so you get to see social events with the characters. Persona 4: Dancing All Night, in turn, is a lengthy visual novel and seeing through its story chapters unlocks songs to be danced in the free mode. Everything you play in each game also unlocks different custom conditions that can be applied to the dance performances. Some add to the score while conditions that alleviate the action detract from it.
All titles in the collection are based on exactly the same gameplay. Notes, represented as circled stars, dash out of the center to the left and right-sides of the screen. On the left, the notes must be matched with up, left and down directional buttons, while on the right, you have to press either triangle, circle or x to line up with them. Sounds easy enough, but extra notes bring more complexity to the dance floor. In unison notes, you have to press two buttons at the same time (picture a rubber band that stretches between left and right-side buttons), for hold notes you must keep their corresponding buttons held down as long as their green bar lasts, and double notes require a double tap of a button. Scratch notes, activated either by thumbsticks or shoulder buttons, aren’t necessary to perform but they bring bonuses to the overall score. Beats pulse and lights flicker all over the place while the characters jiggle through their moves so much that if you’re even slightly susceptible to light patterns, don’t even think about playing these games, no matter how big a Persona fan you might be!
Usually, I’m pretty good at rhythm games. All it takes is to get in a flow, that space between anticipating and reacting to the screen prompts. In Persona Dancing games, though, gameplay ends up being so mechanic that it’s hard to reach that flow. With so many simultaneous notes flying to the left and right, be they regular or of extra variety, the action is more chaotic than symmetric. It becomes uncomfortable to play to the beat of the song and you end just blindly matching prompts with button presses. All games in the collection emphasis how fun it’s to dance. Hardly, because the gameplay feels so forced. While it’s not difficult to put up a sufficient performance to hype up the virtual crowd, it’s not exactly something I’d call fun.
It could also pose a problem where you view the game from. All games are also designed for PlayStation Vita, and it shows when experiencing them on PlayStation 4. Playing on Vita, your eyes are focused on its small screen and your fingers tap buttons right next to it, so all the action is available in a one glance. Transfer the gameplay from comfort of your palms onto a big TV screen and to a controller in your hands, though, and the action becomes disjointed and stressful. You have to be super-attentive as eyes track all over the screen and fingers twitch compulsively.
However, the music featured in Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight, the last of the games I played for the review, got me really going. Its songs had higher beats in minute ratio from the get-go than in other games. It may sound contradicting, but I found that faster the tempo was, the more comfortable it was to get into the flow I had been looking for. Unlike in slower tunes, my attention stayed sharp throughout as the prompts flew faster onto their place and I could tick them easily to the beat. So, fast is good, slow is bad - at least for me. Especially Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight suffers from some super-slow songs!
As a fan service, Persona Dancing games are a mixed bag. I was looking forward most to Persona 4: Dancing All Night, because personally I think there is never enough Yukiko Amagi in the world, so in my case a cash-in would really have worked if I were a paying customer! Alas, the game is the weakest link in the collection. The story of the original Persona 4 enticed me at the time, and it was heartwarming to experience the cast’s everyday life. Here, the story isn’t terribly exciting, a contrived drama about a vanishing idol group and a dimensional force involved in it. It makes much ado about nothing in a long-winded, almost coma-inducing blather while dancing itself is featured too few and far between.
In Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight, the characters seem to have a one-track mind. If they’re interested in something, they don’t talk about anything else in their social events! I swear, they weren’t this one-dimensional in their original game. Again, Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight piqued my interest the most, even though I had never played Persona 3. As the characters were all new acquaintances to me, they felt fresh and were eye-catching on the dance floor, too. I also found its protagonist Makoto Yuki fascinating. In the original PS2 version of Persona 3, Makoto was a young man but in the PSP conversion, you got to choose the protagonist’s gender. To reflect this, here Makoto seems to be a genderqueer, not quite a boy but not a girl either.
The presentation is lovely in all games, with slick production values and expressive anime characters whose dance routines are fun and diverse to watch. Some really got the moves, beautifully choreographed and motion captured, while others, well, strut the best they can. Especially the band performances are meticulously staged, directed and shot. Like in all rhythm games, it’s simply impossible to watch the show onstage as eyes are keenly tracking the prompts, but luckily, you can sit back and enjoy the entire performance in a replay. Dancing through songs unlocks different outfits and accessories for the characters to wear, and the ensuing dress-up is motivating in itself. How much you like the music, though, depends on your taste in J-pop. I take it with moderation, I know what I like and what to pass. Persona Dancing has something for everyone, from up-beat tunes to slow dance songs. While the English dub is passable, and most people will probably know the characters that way, I always go for the original Japanese voices.
All the makings for a good show with a well-established cast, colorful action and good music are there, but with a hefty price tag. To pay hundred bucks for the collection, you really must ask yourself if you’re a fan enough to get something you might not entirely enjoy. I was on a fence myself, and it took the right tracks and the dancers to get into the groove. Then again, when the titles are bought individually, they cost a full game’s worth each so in that sense the collection is a better investment. In the end, Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection is not overall as fun as it could be, so the best bet would be wait for a sale. You might end happier that way.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.