It's barely about games.
Persona 4 was a big turning point for Atlus when it released way back in the ancient times of 2008. Originally just meant to be a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona quickly began to eclipse the success of its parent series with its lighter tone and more approachable gameplay. Now ten years later, Persona has started to gather all sorts of spinoffs of its own, from fighting games to dungeon crawlers. Persona 3 Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5 Dancing in Starlight are two such spinoffs, and their existence perfectly represents just how far Persona has come- for better and worse.
Persona 3 and 5 Dancing (henceforth abbreviated as P3D and P5D) are very much cut from the same cloth of 2015’s Persona 4 rhythm spinoff Dancing All Night. While Dancing All Night had an isolated story mode with its own visual novelesque plot that felt at home with the series, P3D and P5D choose to instead adapt their stories through a series of “social link” style conversations with individual characters. These social links are usually one-on-one, but sometimes other characters will come in for a sort of skit scenario. This framing works very well with the silliness of the game’s story, which features each game’s respective Velvet Room guide challenging each other to a dance off with the player character as their representative.
The games themselves are standard rhythm game fare. Players have six different sections of the screen corresponding to various directional and input buttons, and as notes travel across the screen, players have to hit the corresponding button in time with the music. While the gameplay is largely unchanged from Dancing All Night, with stuff like hold notes and scratches making a comeback, the game has also implemented double-tap notes, which feel like a natural evolution for the songs.
Since there’s no story mode in either of the games, songs are unlocked by clearing them in order through the “Dancing!” menu, similar to the “Free Dance” mode in Dancing All Night. While the hardest difficulty is locked until you complete every song, once you unlock a song you can play it on easy, normal, or hard, so you aren’t forced to slog through a difficulty that might be too simple for you. By getting away from the previous iteration’s story mode, the main draw of playing more and more is wanting to see the social link interactions between Persona’s cast of characters.
Players can progress through social links by doing specific challenges for each character. Haru, for example, required me to get a “Brilliant” rating on a certain number of songs for each chapter of her story, while Ryuji required me to reach a certain total number of combos across all songs. Overall, I actually liked this system a lot more than Dancing All Night’s progression system, since social links are easily the strongest aspect of any Persona game’s storytelling. Getting to spend more time with the cast of Persona 3 and 5 felt like a warm blanket over my soul. It helped remind me exactly what I loved about each of them (except for that bastard Ken). This format also means that the game is able to avoid talking about the usual social commentary that Persona games typically cover, which is much appreciated after Dancing All Night’s criticism of idol culture. A tonal choice that felt extremely dissonant in a quirky dancing game.
Accomplishing most of these challenges is pretty easy, with almost all of them being completable on easy and normal mode if you’re a player just looking for a story. Whenever you finish reading a new social link, you’ll also unlock things like costumes or support powers. Being able to unlock costumes and accessories is a welcome change from Dancing All Night, where players had to earn money from dancing to buy each individual character’s goods. The costumes this time around are also applied to either all of the boys of the cast or all of the girls of the cast as well, meaning you won’t have to grind forever to dress your favorite character up exactly how you want to. One of the weirder things you have to unlock, however, are support modifiers.
Support Modifiers are a translation of Dancing All Night’s item feature. By ticking some boxes before the start of your song, you can enable some helpful accessibility features like making it easier to maintain combos, or being able to hit any button to land notes. Using these features will cost you a bit of your final song score, but in some cases when you’re really struggling it can be useful to turn them on just to finish one of those tougher songs. While it’s good that this feature is much more accessible than it was in the past, you have to unlock most of the support powers by clearing social links, some of which require significant time played. It feels weird that the developers would create such a useful and thoughtful accessibility feature for struggling players, only to require them to potentially play hours before they even get a chance to use them.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there are also challenge modifiers. The challenge modifiers will increase your score at the cost of making the song harder- and pretty significantly at that. Some of these modifiers include making the notes disappear before they reach the hit indicator, or having notes fly in at ever changing and terrifying speeds. While some of these modifiers just seem like stupid masochistic levels of hard, I can definitely see a few of them as being fun for people really invested in rhythm games. A lot of the challenge modifiers are unlocked in the same way as the support ones, which at least makes sense for something that is ostensibly supposed to be an added difficulty.
When all of these systems come together, both new Persona games are incredibly fun to play as well as just look at. The dancing has a ton of silly choreography to it, especially with characters like Akihiko whose moves feel perfectly crafted with their doofiness in mind. Everytime Futaba came into a dance as a dancing partner, I lost my shit over just how ridiculous literally everything she did was. Who lets her do that? Why do they let her do that? It’s just a bad scene.
I spent a lot of time in the game just going through and making the perfect outfit for each individual character that I felt would suit them the best. There’s all sorts of costumes from unique themed sets like Velvet Room-themed garb, to the various outfits that each character wore during their original JRPG debut. With plenty of accessories like glasses and headphones as well, you’re able to make a lot of really sleek, or ridiculous costumes depending on whether you like or loathe a character. While I decked out Makoto to look really cool and intense because I think she’s rad, I put a clown nose and horrible gaudy glasses onto characters like Ken or Junpei because they do not deserve my time, effort, or respect and can frankly go away.
Unfortunately, There are a couple outfits that are just plain awful. In P5D specifically, there’s a pre-choreographed video for the song Last Surprise which features a lot of really tasteless and sexist imagery of the cast’s four women. While I talked about this before when some specifically bad costumes were revealed, I was still unprepared for just how bad and out of place it all ended up being. Seeing characters from a game that was largely about challenging the old and vile ideologies of the condoning and liberal adult populous all of a sudden get dressed up in sexy nazi (?) outfits and start dancing in cages and on poles just feels…really bad. These are characters from a game that looks at the degrading culture around sexism and sexual abuse, and now here they are displayed as fetish objects for a machine they were created to destroy.
There is that strange undercurrent of tonal mishmash throughout both of the game’s social links and presentations as well. Seeing games that were about big and serious social issues all of a sudden get distilled down to funny dancing and non-sequiturs can feel extremely weird at times. With again, reference to the serious opening of its source material, P5D also has the boss theme for the man responsible for a lot of those heinous acts, being danced to by a pumped up Ryuji. It’s not outwardly offensive or anything, and it’s certainly better than Dancing All Night’s tone deaf critique, but there’s just something uncomfortable about it all.
Persona has come so far from being a JRPG spinoff in so many ways. Not only has the series bred its own spinoffs, it’s also gotten to the point where they even go out of their way to generate as much money as possible, and it creates a strange sensation. It’s simultaneously satisfying to see a series that you really love doing well as it becomes more and more popular, but it’s equally disheartening to see that the games have reached the level where they almost feel on the verge of exploitative. This could have been one big rhythm game crossover between Persona 3 and Persona 5, but instead of a single best of both worlds title, the end result ends up feeling a lot more like two different almost complete ones.
Still though, if you’re a big Persona fan, and especially if you’re a fan of rhythm games, you’ll probably get enough of a kick out of P5D or P3D for them to be worth your time. I’d recommend just picking whichever entry you’re more partial to however. Since both games have the same general progression and features, it can be a bit mind numbing to play through them back to back. The games are also played best on the Vita in my opinion, because the smaller screen makes it easier to keep track of notes coming in on both sides, which can be a little hard to parse at times on a larger television or monitor. While I wish they could’ve just come together in one big unified P5xP3 crossover dancing game, I still had fun seeing all my favorite ageless student buddies goofing around all over again, and sometimes that’s all you need.