Mixing the hit 2008 RPG Persona 4 with the world of button-tapping rhythm games may, at first glance, seem like an odd choice, but it's actually a pretty organic pairing. After all, this is a series that stands out from the turn-based crowd thanks to its bold, pop art aesthetic—right down to the J-Rock song accompanying every battle. (Which somehow doesn't get old after 100 hours.)
As with Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q, Dancing All Night exists as pure fan service; and, just like those games, it doesn't coast by on this aspect alone. While having played Persona 4 is almost a prerequisite to get the most enjoyment out of DAN, it still manages to soar above typical fan-pandering Vita games and maintain the series' still-intact dignity. Mercifully, Atlus hasn't been reduced to making us rub the various parts of Persona 4's colorful characters, and the collection of outfits on display for the games' large cast mostly leans towards "tasteful." But while an impressive amount of effort went into making this more than just another gimmicky spin-off, Atlus may have placed their priorities on some of DAN's less-important aspects.
The rhythm action in DAN patterns itself a bit after Hatsune Miku: A circle frames the center of the screen, and notes radiate outwards to meet the icons of buttons you're supposed to press. Even if you've only dabbled in Rock Band or Guitar Hero, it's a concept that shouldn't need much explaining after seeing it in action for a few seconds. DAN adds a few twists, though: Throughout the songs, blue circles sometimes radiate outwards, most often between beats. Since your combo doesn't drop if you miss these optional notes, they exist as an added challenge for players adept enough to flick the analog stick amid the button-tapping action. And when these expanding circles come in rainbow form and bear the word "fever," hitting them fills a meter that eventually causes a partner to join you on stage. (Thankfully, this variety is much easier to hit.)
While Persona 4: Dancing All Night doesn't offer a particularly complex take on rhythm games, it does an excellent job of dressing up your extremely basic actions with the series' typical flair. Each song features an expertly choreographed dance—performed by the character(s) of your choice—and though the action is confined to a single stage, video effects, camera effects, and inexplicable props make these performances a lot of fun to watch. So much fun, in fact, that they have a tendency to distract, if only because your eyes are naturally drawn away from the mostly boring edges of the screen—where they need to be. Replays exist for this purpose, of course, but it would have been nice to see the button prompts overlayed atop the performances themselves, a la Elite Beat Agents and other rhythm games.
When the action works, it works extremely well. The faster, more energy-driven songs feel most at home in Dancing All Night, to the point where easy mode is actually harder, since it's omitting those beats you really want to hit. With the slower and more heartfelt ballads, though, the action never seems quite right. This issue actually reminds me a lot of Theatrhythm, where the low-energy songs always feel a little off because your actions add sound effects that don't at all match the tone they're going for. Thankfully, most of DAN's offerings dwell on the fun, poppy segments of Persona 4's soundtrack—with plenty of remixes that give some of the sappier songs a newfound burst of energy.
Persona: Dancing All Night also offers a story mode that frames its musical segments within a story that feels a lot like your average 13-episode anime series. I honestly appreciate the effort, but much of the (completely optional) narrative feels engineered towards justifying DAN's absurd premise—something that doesn't feel necessary at all. Because its story is limited to a handful of characters and very few locations—and told via the medium of talking heads—many of the scenes amount to outright padding, with characters often reiterating the premise for the umpteenth time. I made an honest attempt to pay attention to DAN's story mode, but after the first chapter ended, I plugged in my headphones and put it on as a sort of "radio play" while I grinded for levels in Final Fantasy XIV. Again, it's impressive that Atlus managed to sneak an eight-hour, fully voice-acted narrative into DAN, but you have to wonder if its 26-song track list could have been slightly bigger if they washed their hands of this idea entirely.
Above all, the fun of Dancing All Night can be found in seeing your favorite characters strut their stuff in a variety of silly outfits, and festooned with an equally silly array of accessories—all unlocked via an in-game currency system. Simply put, without touching DAN, you should have at least some sort of idea about whether or not this basic premise can hold your attention. And though some of you out there may find the story mode appealing, the fact remains that 26 songs (discounting the DLC) makes for a somewhat slim offering, especially for a modern rhythm game. But if you simply want a new lens through which to view your favorite JRPG characters, DAN knows how to make you smile.
DAN's interface remains pretty foolproof, using only six inputs, along with the analog stick. After one song, you should fully understand it.
Essentially, you're playing DAN for the variety of unlockable costumes and accessories, but you may not have much of an incentive to play more once you've cleared the shop of its inventory.
If you like Persona 4's soundtrack, it's back—and in a slightly revamped format. If not, well, this really isn't the game for you.
DAN's choreographed dance numbers are nothing short of stunning, and the familiar cast of characters looks better than they've ever looked before.
While its overly long story mode amounts to a tragic waste of resources, Persona 4: Dancing All Night's strongest qualities can be found in just how well the series' pop art aesthetic meshes with the rhythm game genre. This might not be the most complex or inspired take on rhythm games to date, but DAN certainly knows how to have a good time.