Often acclaimed as the Citizen Kane of games, the first nascent step in legitimizing the medium as art, the original Bioshock constructed a compelling critique of Randian Objectivism. The sequel, however, wisely avoided repeating the message of its predecessor, instead deconstructing the polar opposite philosophical system, Collectivism. The two games taken together then were thematically cohesive in that they were warning against extremist philosophies of any kind, whether the anarchical leanings of the Right or the totalitarian tendencies of the Left.
Persona 4: Dancing All Night, ostensibly a rhythm game, serves to similarly balance the thesis of the role playing game from which it spins off, Persona 4. Repeated ad nauseum by the various party members and implemented mechanically in the form of Social Links, Persona 4 adamantly advocated for the benefit of forming bonds with friends and loved ones, external voices who could show acceptance to the aspects of one’s psyche that one would just as soon hide from society at large. In classic Jungian fashion, Shadows are the inner demons, which through confrontation and reconciliation produces the true self, the Persona (hence the title).
Dancing All Night, in contrast, explores the toxic bonds which sometime form as a substitute for genuine affection. Here internet commentators connect with the characters Japanese teen idols play in public instead of the actual women themselves. If half the stereotypes regarding otaku are even half true, it’s easy to imagine that this is a message which hits especially close to home for much of the game’s native audience, but regardless of the particulars the themes are universally applicable; it has just as much to say to the red carpet obsessed American consumers who digest celebrity gossip in magazines and online.
The narrative is more linear than its predecessor, played out in visual novel segments with no branching options. Nevertheless, this is a Persona game through and through, rife with the same mysteries and false leads, and expert pacing that continually hints at an imminent resolution only to prolong the plot with increasingly surreal circumstances. By the culmination of Dancing All Night it is difficult not to ascribe the events herein as more consequential to the Shin Megami Tensei universe than even the core title itself. Despite being a dancing spinoff, hardly a genre renowned for it narrative strengths, the story pulls no punches.
In that way Dancing All Night shares similarities to Jonathan Blow’s platformer Braid or NetherRealm’s fighting games; it not only inserts narrative into a genre that had previously contained such only minimally, but so perfectly nails its execution that it’s success demonstrates the virtue of competing titles including such as well and raises the question as to why previous games had neglected to do so.
Mechanically, Dancing All Night proves difficult and discordant. With regards to the former, the game is absolutely unforgiving at any setting above Easy. Normal proves to be a masochistic but ultimately surmountable task, while Hard is nothing short of a sisyphean exercise in failure. This problem is easily alleviated by lowering the difficulty level, which locks the player out of only a single purchasable item among scores of others and out of none of the narrative.
More disconcerting, however, is the disconnect between the Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band inspired inputs with the constant refrain of the player characters: “Dancing is a form of self expression.” The game leaves no room for deviation from it fast flowing flurry of commands. The gorgeous visuals of the characters dancing become effectively invisible as the player necessarily fixates on the instructions flying out at the peripheries of the screen. Far from expressing oneself, the player becomes Stanley, employee #427, listening to the orders coming in through his monitor, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and for how long. If Davey Wreden wasn’t depressed before, Free Dance mode would certainly make him so.
Going back to the aforementioned gorgeous visuals, this point can hardly be reiterated enough. Not only does Dancing All Night outshine its elder cousin on the Vita, Persona 4 Golden, but it even surpasses Arena and Ultimax on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as the best looking Persona title to date, in terms of aesthetics, design, and raw graphical power. Aesthetically, the static backgrounds provide a visual cohesion that the low polygon environments of Persona 4 was unable to achieve. Regarding design, the stage costumes of the Investigation Team are their most striking outfits yet, exceeding even their Phoenix Ranger Featherman R costumes. Not only so, but the attentiveness to design carries clearly to the user interface, a technicolor masterpiece that would make Joseph and his siblings alike jealous.
And while no review would be complete without mention of the audio, in Dancing All Night such is a central selling point. Unlike its RPG predecessor, every line of dialogue is fully voiced. The cast of Golden, which includes some of the most prominent voice actors in the industry, all reprise their roles.
And the music… the music! Persona 4 already possessed one of the most iconic song lists in the medium. Its J-pop tracks stood toe to toe with the epic orchestral pieces of Halo, the eerie synthetic techno of Mass Effect, and the classic MIDI chiptunes of Mario and Sonic. If any series had the pedigree to spin-off into the rhythm-music genre, it was Persona 4. The remixes of beloved beats all nail the essence of the original tracks while infusing the necessary tempo to get up onto the dance floor (after a few drinks, of course).
Dancing All Night is far from perfect, but it’s a worthy spin-off to the definite title on the PS Vita, as well as one of the handheld’s best games in it own right (which is certainly saying much, given the copious amount of wonderful indie gems it’s competing against). This is no mere holdover in the arduous wait for Persona 5; this is an essential chapter in the saga of the Investigation Team. Nor is it a contrived chapter, subservient to the tropes of the music-rhythm genre. This is a classic Persona tale, the rhythm genre merely being the most appropriate to its transmission. And yet it not merely utilizes the genre, but revolutionizes it through the infusion of story; Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live can only look upon such bold redefinition with envy. Like Persona 4 Golden, Dancing All Night is unarguably an essential title for every PS Vita owner.