Review: Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight/Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight (PS4)

Atlus is following up the 2015 Vita title Persona 4: Dancing All Night with a tag team sequel that blends Persona 3 and Persona 5 into the music gaming mix. Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight will be made available in North America on Dec. 4 as part of a $100 package that also includes a PlayStation 4 download of a digital port of P4: Dancing All Night (although the new titles can be purchased individually as well). With P-Studio diving back into the series, mileage might vary with some players based on the Persona themes, but both of the new titles do pack a rhythm gaming punch thanks to a completely overhauled game flow and a bit of a tighter focus on options for music game players.

To set up this review, I’ll be packaging both P3 and P5 under the same entry. The easiest way I could describe the concept of Moonlight and Starlight is in a comparison to the dual releases of Pokemon titles (red/blue, gold/silver, etc.) – while both of these new Persona rhythm games offer different experiences based on characters, story and songlists, they both share the same framework when you look at the actual rhythm game mechanics, options and progression. Thus, while personal tastes in the game series and music could lead someone to prefer one game over the other, they both mechanically operate using the same engine.

P3 and P5 both give players another 25 songs per game to sort through (with four selectable difficulty levels for each song), bringing the characters and environments from the 2006 and 2016 Persona entries back into the spotlight. The story segments differ dramatically between Moonlight and Starlight, but they are both very loosely tied together by the Velvet Room in the aftermath of the events of Dancing All Night.

While the story of Dancing All Night unfolded in a serious, visual novel approach that brought the characters together in a new battle, Moonlight and Starlight are entirely contained within the Velvet Room and take a more bite-sized approach to the storytelling. Instead of the longer stretches of story found in P4, the new titles focus more on the personal relationships of the characters in the P3 and P5 series in light-hearted ways.

This major shift in game flow had me enjoying these sequels a bit more than P4, as the story segments unfold at a pace that is dictated by the player. In a manner similar to some of the career progression in Rock Band 3 or the Stellar Master Mode of DanceDanceRevolution SuperNOVA on PlayStation 2, players can tackle the songs and difficulties they wish and still be able to chip away at the parameters such as number of perfects, combos, game modifiers, outfits and accessories that progress the bonds between the characters and unlock further story sequences.

This approach ditches the currency and shop found in P4, and, thankfully, the clunky approach of having to unlock the same accessories individually for every single character. Following every social interaction, a group of accessories, outfits or options unlock that can be universally used between the games’ characters. Going further into the social interactions eventually unlocks a different way to interact with the characters, and this offers a little mini-game to unlock further items that is simple, yet a change of pace compared to the rhythm grind.

A streamlined menu also helps this progress along, as whenever a new interaction has been unlocked, a prompt appears allowing a player to go straight to it with the press of the triangle button. Most of the songs are simply unlocked by playing through what is available (very similar to the free play mode in P4), so the player will see a lot of reward early in their gameplay session. Even if it was a simple accessory, it seemed like through my first hour of play, small rewards were popping up after every single song, which is a nice carrot-and-stick mechanic to keep players engaged on entry.

This game flow is further boosted by the fact some of the unlocks require the player to experiment with the game’s options, setting modifiers the typical music game fan will be familiar with – speed mods, mirror, shuffle/random and more. Using virtually every game modifier at least once will yield a reward for the player and the risk-reward factor of game buffs lowering your final score and challenge mods increasing your final score is still present in P3/P5.

The story bits are there to drive the game progression along and the worldwide releases introduce an English voice cast and text translations for multiple other languages. However, P3/P5 maintains the option to keep the Japanese voice audio, giving the player their preference in audio.

The conversation bits do at times present the player a choice of response, but many of the prompts have little variation or impact on the conversation. I’m not aware of any branching paths or alternate unlocks based on a conversation choice, but, thankfully, because the conversations are broken into bite-sized sections and highlight the game’s dancing theme, it ultimately didn’t drag the game down for me.

Also, Dancing All Night at times featured well done fully-animated cutscenes, but all of the story in P3/P5 is told through dialog scenes. The new entries have an animated opening and video scenes that play as the background to select songs, but fans of the anime segments in P4 may be slightly let down by how limited they are here.

The game’s story also benefits from being mostly self-contained. I personally have not played a mainline Persona game since dabbling with an early entry on the PlayStation One, and most of my exposure to the series comes from P4 Arena (but I’m aware of characters such as Futaba because I have social media accounts). Still, at no point did I ever feel completely lost in the story or completely disconnected from the characters. The situation the characters find themselves in during Moonlight/Starlight might be a little different than their mainline games, but I felt the lighter mood served a dancing/rhythm game well.

When it comes to the presentation and core gameplay in P3/P5, the team didn’t shake things up too drastically, which is a plus given Dancing All Night gave the series some strong legs to already stand on. The rhythm game HUD gets a slight cleanup, and, while both games utilize the same base, these elements have completely different styles and colors to reflect the presentations found in the original Persona 3 and Persona 5 games.

The style and graphical flair found in Dancing All Night is still present in these new titles, but the dancing animations are boosted by choregraphed routines by dancers captured for each character. While the characters still have styles that can be considered unique, timid or bold based on their personality, a story gimmick through The Velvet Room grants every character the ability to physically perform any dance move they envision. Much like P4, these routines also carry over into the FEVER bonus modes, where the character is joined by others for team dances. A lot of work was put into enhancing the characters’ models and animations, and the end result is a very smooth look.

The environments are piped in from the experiences of the characters, bringing dance stages inspired by the original RPG games. They aren’t quite as animated or bustling like the Midnight Stage environments from Dancing All Night, but the clean and very well animated presentation mostly keeps the onscreen graphics from interfering with the player’s ability to keep tabs on the rhythm icons. The animated segments that appear as backgrounds a handful of times throughout the games is a little more distracting, but they look great and weren’t a huge hinderance to the gameplay.

P3 and P5 also slightly alter the appearance of the scratch notes to make them much more visible in the play field, and a new icon highlights notes that repeat in an offbeat rhythm within the same note lane. Overall, while the in-game presentation lost a little bit of its flashiness, it seems to have been done to pay more mind to the rhythm elements of the game. Still, the menus and story segments still echo the presentation of the series and ooze style. These rhythm entries aren’t afraid to borrow the style found in the original games so P3 and P5 still end up looking amazing.

Each title retains some of the original music found in their source game, but also includes remixes, guest artists and a few tracks plucked from bonus features from the series. A decent range of genres, song lengths and BPM are present among the two games, and the audio quality came through as expected while I played the titles. The songs aren’t key sounded, but the player has multiple options to alter the effects triggered when the player hits an icon or scratches to allow them an audible cue to stay on time with the song.

My only criticism of the music is the length of a few of the tracks which are very long for a traditional music game. Alternate shorter cuts could have been a nice addition to the track list, but, because of the clear norma in place, it can become impossible to clear a song on the hardest difficulty (which really slides the performance meter losses and gains against the player’s favor) after a single mistake toward the end of the track. Most of us are used to failing a song in Beatmania IIDX by messing up the ending, but these tracks are between 1-2 minutes of play time and are quick to get back to. It comes with the territory of playing on harder difficulties, but it’s a picky grasp at finding a negative to say about the games’ music selection.

Each title comes with 25 music tracks, which may be a deterrent for rhythm game fans who have tackled titles offering more music at a lower price. Although the titles offer enough side content to try to hammer home value in the track list, it certainly is an issue to consider, especially since it matches content concerns originally raised by some for Dancing All Night.

Based on credits still included in Moonlight and Starlight, it appears the worldwide version will receive DLC released for the Japan version of the game, but nothing was active on the PlayStation Network as of this writing. It will be nice to see how the overall track list can be boosted by support for the game following its launch.

When it comes to gameplay, anyone who has spent any amount of time with Dancing All Night will know exactly what to expect from Moonlight and Starlight. Players will still need to manage six note lanes by timing button presses when an icon matches a stationary field at the edge of the screen. These can come one at a time, in doubles or in variations that task the player with holding the button down for a specific timing. Extra commands are signaled by a circle that flows outward, which adds record scratches to the music.

I was very briefly able to sample Dancing All Night on a PlayStation Vita, and moving to a big-screen television, it took a moment to train my eye to follow more complicated segments outward. But, like any other music game, it becomes second nature with experience, and building combos and score in P3/P5 is very satisfying. Getting bonuses based on challenge modifiers is an interesting way to keep online leaderboards from being completely stale, and the online records are certainly something I’ll at least take a peek at once the game is fully launched.

All three entries in the series are at least worth a visit for seasoned rhythm game players, as, even on normal difficulty, a good section of the songs throw a lot at players that may break their combo. There are challenging difficulty settings beyond the default setting, a fairly strict judgment system in place to get the top two song ratings and a clear norma is in place so players have to reach a specific amount of performance meter on top of not failing out of the song to obtain a clear. To pile even more challenge on to the player, multiple modifiers are in place to make clearing a song an exercise in perfection.

On the other side of the coin, the games will likely get attention from players not so versed in rhythm gaming, who are jumping aboard due to the Persona name and characters. Moonlight and Starlight still have these players covered with an easier difficulty level for the charts and a large variety of unlockable support modifiers that give players generous abilities that will guide them through even the toughest of songs. These modifiers decrease the player’s overall score, but they at least allow them to experience the songs and build skills and confidence that will eventually let them remove these modifiers and move on to higher difficulty settings.

The timing windows for the rhythm inputs are fairly loose compared to some other music game titles as well, so new players shouldn’t feel completely left out and experienced players can tackle songs trying to get a full line of perfect ratings. Through the course of each game, both P3 and P5 cater to a very wide range of players.

When you boil down Moonlight and Starlight, these entries have the rhythm game at the forefront, and the attention to the extra modifiers and focus on performance to progress the story are extremely welcome and move the series forward as a rhythm game. Dancing All Night had a massive focus placed on its story, and that’s not to say the rhythm aspect was an afterthought in the title, but the way everything flows in P3/P5 makes the story and rhythm segments blend together in a much more satisfying way.

There likely will be a player base that is disappointed the story elements aren’t quite as robust as they were in Dancing All Night, but I personally felt the system implemented in P3/P5 didn’t drag out the time spent outside the game’s main rhythm mode. Despite the streamlined experience, it still took me 5-6 hours to “beat” each game, and I’m still eyeing both titles to clean out the remaining unlockables and trophies.

When I say the story elements are reduced, there may be reaction that players are getting skimped out on content or play time, but the unlockables and game flow are implemented in a way that should keep players coming back several times. Still, I suppose not all players will find enough to come back to once the novelty of the social elements wears off if leaderboards and trophies aren’t up their alley.

Both titles use the same framework, but, if you made me pick, I’d say I enjoyed Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight a bit more as the music and characters resonated with me more than its Persona 5 counterpart. That’s certainly going to be subjective, but I can definitely say drawing inspiration from the two games provides a unique experience even if the core mechanics are pound for pound the same, and it’s the main factor in creating a value in owning both of the titles.

Revisiting Persona 4: Dancing All Night

As stated before, the Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection also scores players a downloadable PS4 version of Persona 4: Dancing All night on top of the Moonlight and Starlight titles. As a port of the PlayStation Vita game, the experience pretty much echoes what players would have if they played the game through the ill-fated PlayStation TV (which I also briefly did at an anime convention once). Bemanistyle reviewed Persona 4: Dancing All Night in 2015 when it launched in the U.S., offering it a very favorable score.

The PlayStation 4 version allowed me a chance to sit down with the title in full and soak in the experience, and I would maintain the review by Christopher Snelgrove on our site mostly holds true.

Mapping the scratches to the PlayStation controller’s triggers, I didn’t miss a beat jumping between the three versions. It is obvious Atlus put a ton of effort into the original P4 title, but the story mode was way too lengthy for me. The free dance mode still allows players to make plenty of progression in the title’s offerings, but there are some endgame items that are only obtainable from the game’s story mode. If the rhythm game got sprinkled in more to break up the story, I could have been more invested in the mode.

I do sort of like how serious the story is in P4 compared to the two newer titles, though. The dancing in P3/P5 is light-hearted in its presentation, but the gravity of the situation in Dancing All Night puts in-game stakes on the player’s performance. The call of the characters’ personas at the end of a successful song are also left out of P3/P5, which I thought was an appropriate nod to the source material as a reward for clearing a stage. On the whole, the story is very well done, but it quickly wears out its welcome when these bits go into long stretches with no gameplay.

It probably wouldn’t have weighed on me so much in 2015, but moving between the three games, I now find the currency and store unlocks in Dancing All Night to be obnoxious. I could probably tolerate it slightly more if the same accessories did not need to be purchased per character. Thankfully most of the items are not excessively priced, and I could sweep through nearly all of a character’s goods with funds raised from three or four dances.

The gameplay still holds up, though, and that’s ultimately what matters. While P3/P5 might have done some tiding up to the experience, Dancing All Night still offers very satisfying gameplay. Dancing All Night may have a leg up on P3/P5 when it comes to the Midnight Stage environments and crazier FEVER animations, and, all around P4 is remains a gorgeous game to look at.

While the game might be three years old at this point, the digital download is a fantastic inclusion since many people likely missed out on it due to its Vita exclusivity. When measuring storytelling compared to rhythm focus, P4 is a solid contrast to P3/P5. Although Moonlight and Starlight add on to the music gaming experience, Dancing All Night still holds up as a mighty fine game.

Overview

Overall, Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5:Dancing in Starlight shed a layer of the storytelling found in Persona 4: Dancing All night to place more of a focus on the core rhythm game. The team toned down the visuals just a tick, but the integration of choregraphed moves and improved character models highlight the games’ characters even more with really slick animation. Each game comes with 25 tracks drawn from their source game, and there will be a lot of familiarity in how P3 and P5 play out for those with experience with P4.

P3 and P5 haven’t completely discarded its storytelling, though, opting for a streamlined approach that focuses more on the characters’ relationships with each other as opposed to engaging in a new adventure. This really tightens up the game flow as players get to experience bite-sized conversations by building up game stats in the main rhythm mode.

Progression is intelligently set up so players can still play songs in ways they choose and modifiers open the game up for players of any skill level. The game also breaks up its unlocks to spread out along the way, meaning there is almost always something new to shoot for.

The gameplay is largely unchanged from P4 outside of a few updates that clean up the playfield, which is fine since it was very solid to begin with. There are a lot of options to toy with and the game actively encourages players to use these for further unlocks and a risk-reward system implemented into the game’s scoring.

On the downside, the what-if scenarios are ultimately enjoyable, but since the story has no gravity to it, player choices in conversation have no real impactful meaning. Some of the song lengths are impacted by the hardest difficulty settings, and a few of the full-animated background videos distract from the gameplay icons.

Although there is a lot to do and see in Moonlight and Starlight, the game will likely attract Persona fans that will lose interest in the rhythm game grind once the novelty of the social interactions wears off. Some fans of the series who also enjoyed Dancing All Night may also be disappointed the story is less of a highlight in the titles, but that comes with the trade-off of having more focus placed on the rhythm aspect. On the rhythm gamer side, if the fan service is of no interest, it may be hard to get over having 25 songs per game when other offerings present more songs at a lower price.

Being a fan of the source material helps, but, thankfully, it isn’t necessary at all to enjoy the games for what they are. Both Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight look great, sound great and carry over the solid rhythm gaming found in the original Persona 4: Dancing All Night entry. The new pacing in P3 and P5 really drive the games forward, but there still a ton of nods to fans in the streamlined social interactions.

Bemanistyle.com was provided a digital copy of the Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection for the purposes of this review.

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