Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection Review
Dancing the night away
I've always been a little mixed on Persona Dancing as a concept. I'm a fan of the Persona JRPG series and have always enjoyed the characters, but the rhythm game spin-offs had the faint waft of a cash-grab to me - a way to milk nostalgia out of a successful franchise by wrapping a simple music game in a familiar aesthetic and selling it at full price. But when I actually sat down and played both Persona 5 Dancing in Starlight and Persona 3 Dancing in Moonlight (bundled together as Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection), that skepticism quickly vanished. Dancing in Starlight and Dancing in Moonlight don't feel like cash grabs as much as they feel like an end zone dance, a celebration of the series and its music. Sure, the JRPG mechanics aren't present, but the two games are having so much fun with the silly premise, it feels disingenuous to be cynical about it. If this is a cash grab, it's the best kind - and you shouldn't feel bad about handing over your money.
If you're a Persona die-hard, you likely played the series' previous dancing game, Persona 4: Dancing All Night. I actually wasn't a huge fan, as it either forced players into a long, dull story mode or had them miss out on interacting with the characters altogether, which is half the reason to buy a game like this. The segmentation between story and gameplay didn't do Persona 4: Dancing All Night any favors, so I'm happy to say that Dancing in Moonlight/Starlight found a creative way to skip the story aspect but still allow you to interact with all your favorite demon-fighting high-schoolers, offering short little scenes of social interaction instead of an actual plot.
There is a short scene that plays before you jump into the game that sets the stage (no pun intended) for the dancing. The strange agents of the Velvet Room (an extra-dimensional location that is used in all Persona games) have remade their domain into a dancing club called Club Velvet in order to throw a party and have transported the characters from Persona 5 (in Dancing in Starlight) or Persona 3 (in Dancing in Moonlight) to help keep their guests entertained by having them dance on-stage. The Club Velvet characters are unique to each game; Elizabeth runs the club in Dancing in Moonlight, while the twins, Justine and Caroline, run it Dancing in Starlight.
If you're thinking that the premise sounds silly, you're right. The whole thing is so silly. It's perhaps the silliest excuse to get a cast of characters together for a party since Mass Effect 3's Citadel DLC. But you don't really care once you've started dancing. The previously mentioned social interactions are scenes that usually run about a minute long and follow the characters as they learn how to dance and reflect on how they've grown since getting to know the protagonist of their respective game. The scenes are made available by completing milestones, which could be unlocking challenge modes, getting certain scores, or simply performing with different outfits/accessories. The scenes are cute and fun, very much in line with the tone of the original games. Some voices in Dancing in Moonlight sound a little off since Persona 3 is 12 years old now, but Dancing in Starlight offers the return of Persona 5's entire cast.
The story is totally goofy and disposable, but it all makes a nice excuse for the gameplay, which is pretty great. I'm not a huge connoisseur of the rhythm genre, but I found Dancing in Starlight/Moonlight to be challenging and rewarding. The games employ six buttons on the controller, forming a circle that excludes the right button on the d-pad and the Square face button. This circle is represented on screen and players have to time corresponding buttons with the arrival of the notes over the corresponding symbol. It's pretty standard rhythm game fare, and even if your experience with the genre is limited (such as myself) to Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero, it won't take you long to catch on. The game adds difficulty to its straightforward gameplay by employing a number of different button presses. Some notes require a quick double-press and some need to be held. In addition to the notes, players can flick the left or right analog stick to create scratches when prompted. Scratches can help boost your score, but they are not required to be hit the same way that notes are.
There's a steady learning curve, which kept me invested while playing both games. I limped through the songs at first, on the medium difficulty. Then, when playing Dancing in Moonlight, I tried clearing every song on the easy difficulty to get a better feel for the game. After that I was able to crank things up, getting better and better. Turning the difficulty down can really help you understand what part of a song the rhythm is following, as it can change. Sometimes you're following the beat of a track, sometimes you're following the melody, and other times it's the lyrics. Taking things easy at first can help you attune to when these switches occur. The more I played both games, the better I got at the rhythm; double notes stopped being a problem for me and I began to hear where the scratches fit in each song. It's a natural progression that had me eager to try more difficult tracks to show off what I was learning. The songs also are the perfect length, short enough that you're always tempted to play one more before calling it quits.
While I was totally into the gameplay, it's not perfect. There's a nasty difficulty spike between medium and hard modes, so much so that I had every track on medium difficulty finished without missing any notes, but still struggled to get through the easiest songs when changing the difficulty to hard. Also, the static construction of a rhythm game doesn't always jive with Persona's definition of dancing. It's weird to hear the characters talk about letting loose and learning how to express themselves through dance, while you dogmatically follow the prompts of a machine - not engaging in a lot of this self-expression the game seems so eager to hype up.
The other issues are aesthetic and mostly have to do with the mixing of the game's sound. It's nice to have the other characters cheering while the song plays, but they can sometimes drown out the music. There's some good lines of dialogue - a couple actually got me to laugh - but they can distract from the demanding gameplay. It's also a bummer that the game allows you to customize dances and puts in impressive animation work to then demand you ignore it and focus on the buttons - largely missing the dances themselves. You can watch a replay to review your work, but it lacks a lot of the energy that's inherent to when you're actually playing.
That being said, the game looks great. The characters models are more expressive than they were in Persona 5 - and the Persona 3 characters have never been rendered to scale in a game before so there's no competition there. The cutscenes are a little dry, but later on you get to explore the rooms of each character to find hidden calling cards left by your Club Velvet hosts, which is fun and gives you a nice break from the intense gameplay. It should surprise no one that the music is excellent. The Persona games have always had great music, but there are some brilliant remixes in both games that make the songs even better. The mito remix of River in the Desert turns the song into a dubstep track that is my favorite from Dancing in Starlight, and Dancing in Moonlight has several remixes for Want to be Close, Burn my Dread and Way of Life that have been stuck in my head for days. Even if you're not a Persona fan, just find some of this music on YouTube and give it a listen - it's exceptional stuff.
Persona fans already knew the music would be good, but I was impressed by just how much fun the dancing animations are. It's so cool that each character has their own dance style and it suits their personality - like how Haru, an affluent heiress, specializes in ballet or how Akihiko's boxing prowess translates into a lot of jumping and punching. This attention to detail and knowledge of the characters validates the decision to develop the game in-house at P Studio. The animations don't perfectly sync up to the music, but the snapping of the notes in the gameplay help it feel like you're watching a crisper performance. There also are some fun customization options for songs. Each character has different outfits and accessories that can be changed out, and you can also swap out different dance partners for each song which changes the choreography.
A lot the costumes and aesthetic choices can be silly and fun. There are Halloween costumes and 70's disco accessories, just lots of goofy stuff. The one thing I could have done without is some of the sexy attire. This is a Persona game so it comes with its own fetishes and hang-ups, but the sexualizing of high-schoolers (especially Futaba who is between the age of 15 and 16) is uncomfortable. The freedom of control makes this something you can largely avoid, but there is a song that does not allow for costume customization where all the girls of Persona 5 perform Last Surprise in corset dresses and swimsuits, dancing in cages and lounging around on top of each other. It kind of feels like you've been invited to watch your nieces' burlesque show where she strips to the Cell Block Tango. Even weirder is that characters themselves don't seem to like these costumes and when you equip the sexy costumes in-game they nervously complain that there's too much skin showing - or ask you to stop staring at them. It's a weird dynamic in a game that is otherwise fun and creative.
All-in-all, I really liked both games. I started smiling the moment the menu music started playing in Dancing in Starlight and it rarely wore off. Deep and meaningful? No, these games are supposed to be dumb fun - a spontaneous dance party with friends, taking place while the parents are out of town. Dancing is fleeting happiness, you know the song will be over in minutes, but for that small window in time you can give yourself over to joy and just let your body relax. And that's something these games capture quite well; by the time you've turned off your console and left the house, you might not remember why you loved rocking out to the Persona soundtrack, but while the music is pumping and your fingers are nimbly navigating the controller, you just can't stop. The track list comes in at around 20 songs in each game and it takes about 10 hours to play through the story, but much like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, you can spend a lot more time mastering tracks and playing the game with your friends. Sitting on the couch, taking turns changing your costumes and then showing off your skill is a good time that can be fun long after you've unlocked everything.
I think the hardest thing about these games is trying to figure out which to recommend if you can only buy one. They both have great tracks, the social interactions are both silly and fun, and the costumes are basically the same. So in the end - if the $100 asking price of Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection is too steep to get both - I'd recommend just going with the characters you like more. If you're going to spend a night out dancing, you might as well do it with your favorite friends.