Forget the Midnight Channel, welcome to the Midnight Stage.
Persona 4’s dancing game spin-off was announced at a chaotic time. Fans were clamoring for news of the long-awaited Persona 5, but also were hit with the bombshell of a rhythm game based on the franchise. Even more interestingly, the Project Diva veterans at Dingo were on board to keep the project on point. Early fears were that it was going to be yet another attempt to cash-in on Persona 4’s success and devout fan base, but it seemed sure to be fun if nothing else.
With Project Diva as a base, how could it go wrong?
Well, Dingo dropping off the team for starters. They stayed on in an advisory capacity, but the bulk of the development was shifted to Atlus’ in-house team and the Persona studio. This lead to concern that the project was in jeopardy. Fortunately, Atlus have proven up to the task. The end result is an enjoyable, if flawed, experience that also happens to fit into Persona 4’s convoluted canon, somehow.
Atlus have repeatedly stated that P4DAN(as it will be affectionately abbreviated henceforth) wasn’t going to be just another rhythm game. It would also include a comprehensive story mode, and that was no small claim. (If you’re strictly interested in the gameplay, feel free to continue past this section.)
DAN does indeed have a very long, involving story mode, which nearly takes 10 hours to clear… and that was with my reading ahead of the voice acting on several occasions. Despite the ridiculous premise, in which the Investigation Team have to enter a new shadow realm and defeat their enemies by showing them their dance moves(seriously), P4D’s storyline is anything but abbreviated.
And therein lies part of the problem. Atlus still manages to spin an engaging tale. The new characters are well-designed, have interesting stories, and the highlight of the expanded cast(Kanami Mashita) is a genuinely welcome addition to the Persona 4 roster. She has a fun personality, a good design(outside of her ridiculous stage costume), and brings a breath of fresh air to the story. In fact, the story would have been better off had it solely focused on Kanami.
Ironically, it’s the returning cast that really drag the story down. Countless scenes if not hours are spent on the team persuading victim after victim to ‘not give in’ and ‘believe in their bonds’ and on and on. Any veteran of Persona 4 probably will get the picture by the time the first rescue is performed. Although this thankfully doesn’t take up the entire story mode, as things finally get moving once the rescues are over with, it begins to seriously weigh down an otherwise solid plot. It’s also jarringly apparently that Rise’s original voice actress, Laura Bailey, is not present for the dub of a fully-voice acted game. Her replacement made a valiant effort, but it just isn’t the same.
Outside of the aforementioned Persona 4 weight, the driving story does manage to stay engaging and even deliver a few genuinely surprising plot twists. The creative team behind the game deserve a lot of credit as well.
The original music, new characters, backgrounds, and animated cutscenes were all handled with great talent and care. The title screen music, ‘Baby Go For It, Feel The Vibe!’, composed by SMTIV’s Ryota Kozuka, is insanely catchy. There’s also a lot of little touches that brought a smile to my face, such as seeing classic demon icons from the original Shin Megami Tensei used as a scoring gauge during gameplay, and hearing Lotus Juice himself voice brief call outs during the Midnight Stage cut-ins while stages load.
Event scenes are sparse, but well placed and often very well done, though one near the late-game seemed forced and obligatory. (You’ll know it when you see it. Let’s just say be careful about playing this at work.) I felt some of the animation in P4D was easily on par with cutscenes from the console fighting game. The charming opening, done to the title track ‘Dance!’, is easily a highlight, and is worth watching every single time. It’s clear Lotus Juice hasn’t lost his touch since Persona 3. In fact, when is Persona 3’s version coming out?
Any Persona fan should enjoy the story if they can overlook the serious flaws in having familiar territory tread over and over again, but someone not familiar with the universe may find they get bored of the delays very, very quickly. It’s also worth noting that the personification of a male dance instructor, who of course happens to be flamboyant and flirtatious with every man in sight, struck me as being in poor taste. Usually Atlus are better at playing against expected stereotypes, but this particular character happens to be just that, and winds up being more of a caricature.
But enough of the story, what if you’re just here for the dancing and button pressing? P4D is best described as a mixture of DJ MAX Portable and Project Diva. As buttons appear, the player has to hit the appropriate d-pad and face buttons to the beat of the song, sometimes even two at once(on opposite sides of the Vita, thankfully). Occasionally giant blue circles require moving the analog to create a ‘scratch’ effect. Fortunately these notes are very lenient on the accuracy grading,as they can be the toughest ones to hit, since they often are placed in the middle of face button chart sequences. Beginners, fear not: Atlus took into account that some players who aren’t familiar with rhythm games may be here just for the story, so there’s an extremely forgiving easy mode with simple note charts.
Unfortunately, button presses aren’t key-sounded, but maintaining longer combos will not only keep the song going(as the grading scheme is VERY strict), but also reward the player by having other dancers join the stage during ‘Fever’ sequences. The game can be quite unforgiving, as if to balance out the relatively easy charts compared to some of the insanity seen in the likes of DJ MAX and Project Diva. If the meter isn’t green or flashing by the end of a song, even if the player missed only two or three notes, it’s possible to completely fail and have to start over.
First, the positives: P4D is a gorgeous game. The dance moves, presentation, and gameplay are all smoothly integrated. Each character has a specific array of dance moves that brings their personal flavor to each track. This is also a flaw, sadly: each track in the game is limited to a certain character, since it was choreographed with them in mind(i.e. Naoto and Heaven, Yukiko and Snowflakes, and so on). Although most do lend each track a unique style(Yosuke being a surprising highlight), certain characters appear downright comical, such as Kanji’s moves being more akin to someone moshing and breaking things than anything approaching a dance.
Unfortunately, outside of the story mode, this isn’t enough to carry a player’s interest for very long. Although there is a plethora of Persona 4 tracks to be found, many of which were given fantastic remixes, very few of them feel appropriate for a dancing game. High tempo remixes of iconic tracks like Heartbeat, Heartbreak and Heaven abound, but even the best tracks like Snowflakes and Dance! wear out their welcome very fast. Then you have tracks such as the Junes Theme and Shadow World which feel wildly out of place, only having a place as sheer fan service.
Although Atlus was generous with giving each track its full version in-game, it only adds to their repetitiveness. I felt some of the stronger charts in the game came from the DLC, drawing from the opening and ending songs from Persona 4’s animated adaptation. They were half the length of the usual tracks, but were a lot more fun to play, and ended strong rather than becoming drawn out.
There’s, of course, a lot of replay value to be found here if you can manage to play the same songs over and over. The game’s Hard difficulty will prove plenty challenging for experienced rhythm gamers, and the final difficulty(‘All Night’) brings some truly nightmarish charts into play. An in-game shop, care of Persona 3’s Tanaka’s Amazing Commodities, also provides lots of extra content like costumes, accessories, and so on.
Despite my criticisms, it bears repeating: Atlus really went above and beyond for this game. There is a lot of content for any Persona fan to enjoy, but P4D feels more like a good story-driven experience and a good rhythm game rather than excelling at being either. If this does turn out being the final Persona 4 spinoff, Atlus certainly went out with style… but there’s potential for a lot more here. They could have gone out with a bang.