I can’t blame Persona fans for being anxious, even frustrated right now. If the tantalizing promise that Persona 5’s Joker will be playable in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate sometime this year wasn’t enough, Atlus has now worked us up into an even frothier mess of impatience, announcing that more projects based on Persona 5 are on the way, eventually. And ... that’s all Atlus is going to tell us for now.
But Atlus also released a remarkable anti-anxiety med just ahead of the holidays, made just for these same spiraling Persona players who want more from these wonderful high-school RPGs. PlayStation 4 and Vita’s Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight are the silliest, most self-aware games in the franchise yet — and peaceable halfway points between satisfaction and seething rage for people craving more.
I delved into the early parts of both games during the December doldrums to find that, unlike the bloated Persona 4: Dancing All Night, this is a pair of svelte rhythm games. Gone is the visual novel-like story mode, which added a needless veneer of import to the rest of the experience. And that experience is straight-up silliness; Persona: Dancing games are a chance to see our favorite teen heroes dancing their hearts out, and it needs little more explanation than that.
Instead of coming up with a long-winded reason for thrusting the cast into the world of professional dancing, as in Dancing All Night, Dancing in Moonlight and Starlight just cut to the chase. The respective games’ Velvet Room attendants conjure the characters into their realm and tell them they need to dance. Why? Because the two Velvet Rooms are competing against each other to see who’s more talented. This comes out in a short, sweet, incredibly silly cutscene that opens both games. Keywords: “short,” “sweet” — brevity was not Dancing All Night’s forte.
After that, we’re off to the good stuff, baybee. We get to dance as preteen Ken from Persona 3, forced into the role of a boy-band heartthrob along with the rest of the game’s boys. Its beautiful, stoic boy lead is as beautiful and stoic as ever, on the dancefloor. We dance it up as Persona 5’s Morgana in full, bobble-headed form. Futaba thinks that she needs to level up to become a better dancer, because everything is a video game to her. Everyone has ridiculous outfit options, and everyone has bought in to the dance party wholeheartedly. There are even social links, conversations between dance partners that are self-referential and fluffy; it’s all pure joy, in ways that trump Dancing All Night and then some.
The games aren’t all perfect song remixes and indulgent music video effects. The rhythm gameplay itself can be clunky, as it’s born from the school of thought that wrongly believes it’s a good idea to use analogue sticks, the D-Pad and face buttons to hit notes all over the screen. It’s a mess. Cranking the difficulty down to easy makes the experience far more pleasant, although dedicated rhythm game players will be in want of a better difficulty curve. Dancing in the Persona world, much like fighting, is either a cake walk or trial by fire.
If these don’t sound at all like the Persona games an average fan craves, well, yeah. They’re not. Persona has dipped into myriad genres by now, though, and the series has proven to be lighter than most of the stony-faced, demon-collecting Shin Megami Tensei RPGs. Dancing in Moonlight and Dancing in Starlight feel most emblematic of Persona’s charming individuality within the larger SMT canon. After Dancing All Night took the series into these waters in 2015, this latest pair is also far more digestible. In these early days of 2019, when exciting new game releases are mostly light, the weather is miserable, and Atlus keeps averting our gaze when we demand more info on what’s to come, sometimes it’s nice to just dance it all away.