Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 is an unlikely candidate to spawn a franchise. The game, which debuted on the PS2 in 2008, tells the story of a group of high school friends in a small Japanese town who investigate a string of murders while also fighting off mysterious demons. Like the rest of the series, it’s a weird blend of life sim and role-playing game; by day you’re a regular high school student worried about exams and your dating life, but at night you’re part of a demon-hunting team, fighting off evil while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s an intriguing mix that made the original a cult hit, and led to a surprising number of spinoffs, including a Vita port, a 2D fighting game, and a dungeon crawling RPG that also starred the cast of Persona 3.
And now comes Persona 4: Dancing All Night, a game about fighting evil through the power of dance. It’s ridiculous, wonderful, and the best reason in a long time to dig out your Vita.
The game takes place shortly after the events of Persona 4, and centers around Rise Kujikawa. In Persona 4 she was a former Japanese pop idol taking a break from the rigors of superstar life, but in Dancing All Night she’s looking to get back into the game — and she brings the entire investigation team with her to serve as backup dancers at a big upcoming music festival. It’s silly, but it’s an excuse to get the gang back together, though the lighthearted premise quickly takes a turn for the dark. There’s a rumor going around that anyone who watches a video on the festival’s website at midnight will be transported to a mysterious world from where you’ll never return, and, unlike most urban legends, this one is real.
The premise is very similar to that of the original Persona 4 — you’ll explore a dark world shaped by the insecurities and fears of its inhabitants — but playing Dancing All Night is very different. It’s divided into two distinct parts. There’s the story, told through a combination of text, voice acting, and the occasional anime cut scene. The narrative is very straightforward and not interactive in any way; you just keep tapping X to move the story along (luckily the writing and acting are great). But every so often, when swarms of shadow monsters become overwhelming, that’s when you break out your dance moves. Because in the world of Persona 4: Dancing All Night, the best way to ward off evil is to express yourself through dance.
The dancing sequences in the game work remarkably well considering all you use are six buttons on the Vita; without touch controls or a DDR dance mat, the game manages to make it feel like you’re really in tune with the music through an ever-changing combination of button presses in time to the beat. Outside of the main story mode, which took me around a dozen hours to complete, there’s also a free dance mode where you can play any song at any time, and unlock new outfits for everyone to wear.
If you haven't played the original, there's not a lot for you here
The main story mode is surprisingly heavy on the story, and while I enjoyed it a lot, it's hard to imagine anyone not already into Persona 4 slogging through so much dialog just to get to the dancing. Really, this is a game that's all about fan service; if you haven't played the original, there's not a lot for you here. Some of the fan service is a bit much, too — the unlockable bikini costumes made me feel pretty icky, especially since the female characters are high school students.
But for Persona fans, it's a chance to spend some time with a loveable cast of characters, and a new way to interact with some amazing music (the soundtrack is primarily remixes of songs from the PS2 game). There's also a lot of unlockable content to dig into, including brief animated sequences and a jukebox so that you can pretend your Vita is an iPod with a very limited selection of songs.
Dancing All Night is fun, but it also lacks the depth that made Persona 4 so beloved. One of the great things about the Persona games is how the various systems interact; if your social life is going well, combat becomes easier. In Dancing All Night the story and dancing modes are completely separate, so if this is your first experience with the franchise, you’ll probably wonder what all the fuss is about. But for those who already love it, it’s a great reminder of why. Dancing All Night is sort of like a Doctor Who holiday special, a brief, one-off experience aimed directly at existing fans.
Actually, it’s better than that — it’s a Doctor Who special where Peter Capaldi learns to breakdance.
Persona 4: Dancing All Night launches on the PS Vita on September 29th.