Persona 4: Dancing All Night pulls off exactly what I want from a follow up to a great story, leveraging the original to create something new and tell a story that you couldn’t tell without that foundation.

P4:DAN is a visual novel/rhythm game that expects you to have played a 100+ hour RPG before you walk in the door. That’s a tall order and makes me unable to recommend it to everyone, even though (Spoilers!) I really love it. Although, if you have a Vita and haven’t played Persona 4 Golden I actually don’t know what you’re doing with it. Are you letting it collect dust? There just aren’t that many Vita games.

Well let’s back off that for the moment and talk about the bread and butter of this game, the rhythm gameplay.

This is basically a six button game, using the d-pad and face buttons, except for right and square. These buttons are mapped to 3 circles on each side of the screen, that all fall along a larger circle arc to let you know when to press stuff. You can also just press the buttons on the screen itself if you’re into that I guess. You’ve got single press (yellow star notes), holds (Green H notes that stretch back for how long you have to hold them), and sometimes the game will ask you to press a button on both sides simultaneously (Pink U notes that have a band across the screen connecting them). Usually those simultaneous presses are mirrored, but in the highest unlockable difficulty, All Night, they can also be diagonal. Also the game will often ask you to hold two notes at the same time, but those just appear as normal hold notes. On lower difficulties those will be lined up on rhythm, but on harder difficulties it’ll mix it up more on you.

The scoring depends on your ability to string together combos. A press of “perfect” or “great” will add on to your combo streak, a “good” will break the streak, but not on all the single notes (If it will break the arc the note is following will be red), and a miss of any kind will break the combo. Though the games doesn’t punish you at all for extra actions (So you can spam away on lower difficulties during a break. On harder difficulties you’re not gonna have time for that though.) It’s simple to grasp in concept, but if you’re not used to it the game will quickly overwhelm you on harder difficulties. (You generally can’t miss more than about 8 notes on hard.)

There’s also a 5-tier rank for how excited the audience is, starting at neutral white. Do well and that will elevate to green and then rainbow, miss notes and it will drop to yellow and then red. Make a mistake on red and the song will automatically end there. On “hard” and “all night” the margins for success are so tight that you’re probably going to fail anyway if you drop to red. You can only pass a track if you get the audience to green or rainbow by the end so you’re really punished for missing notes.

In addition to the six buttons, there are also scratches, which just require you to push either one of the analog sticks in any direction (There’s also a menu option for using the shoulder buttons, but I found that more awkward personally.). There are 4 different sounds for scratches depending on how you push the sticks, 2 for each side. The prompt for scratches are an arc with no note, normal blue ones and also rainbow bands with the word “Fever” in them that play into an additional mechanic. These scratches add to your combo streak if you hit them, but missing them does not break your streak. So it’s always more important to make sure you’re hitting the notes. Every song has one or two “Fever” sections, and usually this is where a backup dancer will appear, and will kick up the action and allow “good” note to continue a combo allowing you to really rack up score. To trigger these sequences you need to hit three fever scratches before the song gets to that part.

Each song has a particular character character attached to it as the primary dancer. In the story mode you don’t have any settings to play around with but in the Free Dance mode you get some options. You can change the dancer’s costume and give them accessories, which unlock with in game currency or additional DLC (Both free and paid). You can also choose your backup dancer on most tracks, but only after you’ve cleared it. Each of the three default difficulties has a different backup dancer attached to them, and only after you’ve cleared that difficulty can you use them freely and customize them as well on that track.

The game expects you to play these tracks multiple times in Free Mode if you want to get the currency to unlock costumes and accessories, and also unlock all the backup dancers. The game and music are good enough that I wanted to do this anyway, so I was happy to have the progression carrot leading me along, but it’s worth noting. There are also only a handful of tracks unlocked in Free Mode at the start, and clearing the Story mode does not unlock more. You unlock additional tracks in Free Mode only by beating specific tracks in Free Mode. I don’t think you should have to unlock tracks if you’re already played them in the Story Mode, but again I wanted to play all the tracks multiple times so this is a nitpick. It is bullshit, but honestly the progression guiding me forward made it more fun for me, so it’s hard to complain too much.

There are also some DLC tracks, a couple of which are free, but the big ones that actually introduce a new dancer that wasn’t in the base game are $5 apiece, which is too much. (I say even though I bought and enjoyed playing with them) What’s really frustrating about these tracks is that if they had been part of the base game then these characters could have been integrated better and shown up as backup dancers, instead of just being locked off in their own songs. These characters also lack additional costumes, though you can buy accessories for them with in game currency. (Including wigs and colored contacts, which are paid DLC for the main roster.) It’s not a big deal if you’re not into the value proposition and the game doesn’t push you to buy that stuff. I just like the game enough that I’m fine with buying the extra stuff I want.

So while there is for sure a rhythm connection between the gameplay and the song you’re listening too, there is no connection between what you’re doing and the characters dancing in the background. (Other than whether or not you popped Fever Mode.) This makes your actions disconnected from the nonsense going on in the background that’s aiming to delight and distract you. The only effect is that the screen will darken and fade if you fall into the red from mistakes. There are some triggered audio responses, but those quickly become repetitive and rely on you caring about the characters enough to be delighted with them cheering you on.

The key is that the gameplay is fun and repeatable. Aiding in that repeatability are items, also purchased with in game currency. (Thankfully they’re not consumable, you only have to buy each one once.) These act as Skulls or Mutators, allowing you to mix up the challenge for yourself, or provide a handicap. They also generally boost or cut back on your score and cash payout to counterbalance their effect. Making the game harder for yourself will payout a greater reward. You can also adjust the note speed from that same menu and this has no effect on your score or payout.

Persona 4 makes a good target for a rhythm game because it’s had a lot of great music across multiple games. P4:DAN has a number of track remixes (Some songs are remixed twice) and I like all of them. Obviously I have my personal highlights, but the big thing is that I look forward to playing tracks over and over just because I like the songs. Good gameplay combined with that desire is a potent combination.

But enough about the game, lets talk about the visual novel.

P4:DAN‘s story mode is just a visual novel that will break occasionally for a rhythm game section, very much in the vein of the story modes of the Persona 4 fighting games Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. But P4:DAN stands out by just being a much better idea. The P4A games struggled with finding justifications for the 1 on 1 fights they were built around. The original P4A was notably bad for having you repeat the same story over and over. Fights were very contrived, with little thematic significance or growth from the characters. There was some, but not enough and there was an equal amount of backsliding and retreading. P4:DANpushes forward better from where these characters were by the end of the original game. The P4A games also fall more in line with Persona 3 and had all those characters who I’m just less familiar with and affectionate for. I still haven’t finished Persona 3, but from what I’ve seen it doesn’t quite appeal to me as strongly as Persona 4. Persona 4 is my favorite game though, so basically everything appeals to me less than it.

Persona 4 was about characters confronting the ugliest part of themselves, and learning to accept that part with the help of friends who also accepted them. It’s repressed teens dealing with their real world shit while also fighting monsters and investigating a mystery. It’s about facing yourself, facing the world, and finding the truth. Persona 4: Dancing All Night uses Japanese Pop Idols (Not a stretch since one of the main characters of P4 is an idol.) to flip that idea slightly. Here our heroes are fighting back against the idea of becoming the person everyone else wants you to be. An idea the idols they have to rescue are extremely susceptible to. Having already confronted themselves, our heroes have the self confidence to fight back against this idea by expressing who they really are THROUGH DANCE! That’s the basics at least.

Kind of my favorite part of the story though is that while out heroes are stuck in another world rescuing idols, we follow around another idol (The one playable dancer who is a new character, Kanami), in the real world as she teams up with other P4 characters to investigate what’s going on in the real world. This part of the story is really funny and pure gold, whereas the stuff in the other world, The Midnight Stage, while still good, can get a little repetitive in the way the P4A games would with the same set up beats repeated over and over.

This is a new canonical story about my favorite characters in video games. It hit emotional notes that got to me while also being super silly and all about dancing. It does my favorite thing: taking its silly story seriously without taking itself too seriously. Again though, it all works so well for me because of what I saw these characters go through in the original game. Characters that were completely repressed and closed off, that now have the self confidence to dance their hearts out. And I can put them in silly outfits. It just makes me really happy.

Persona 4: Dancing All Night is a strong contender for my game of the year and I hope I made it clear why. Maybe the only game this year that really won me over on both the story and gameplay fronts.

But if you haven’t played Persona 4 yet, go do that. It’s worth it.