Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight & Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight Review

  • Developer: Atlus
  • Publisher: Atlus
  • Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
  • Release Date: December 4, 2018

PS Vita digital review copy provided by the publisher.

It’s been five years since Atlus revealed the unexpected with their first foray into the rhythm game genre through Persona 4: Dancing All Night (hereinafter “P4D”). Despite its existence initially being questionable, it turned out to be a worthwhile package with its excellent presentation, lengthy story mode, and simple yet competent rhythm gameplay. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the successors which base themselves on P4D’s foundation: Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight (hereinafter “P3D” and “P5D”).

First, I want to emphasize that P3D and P5D are two separate games with their own separate music, characters, backgrounds, etc. Despite that, both are combined into a single review because of how similar they are fundamentally, as they both share the same structure in terms of progression and mechanics. The notable differences are what you’d expect: P3D is all about Persona 3 down to its UI, and the same goes for P5D for Persona 5. And while both games share the same score as a result, I preferred P3D overall (more on that in a bit).

The most important change from P4D to P3D/P5D is the lack of a direct analog for its lengthy, 8-hour long story mode. Replacing it is a “Social” mode, consisting of brief, character focused vignettes. The establishing scenes for both games transport the main casts into a dream where time stands still and where their memories will disappear once they awaken. The Velvet Room attendants decide to organize a dance competition within this dream to prove which of their “guests” are superior.

P3D and P5D both have eight characters, and each have eight social events. Through the perspective of the main character, players have a couple of dialogue options per event. Unlocking these social events requires fulfilling different tasks throughout the game, like completing a number of tracks with a “Brilliant or higher” rating, or clearing tracks while wearing different outfits. Completing these tasks to see some of the events starts to feel like a grind, but thankfully they’re all worth seeing.

The social events are each around 4-5 minutes long. They center around the main characters of P3D’s Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad and P5D’s Phantom Thieves coming to grips with having to express themselves through dance, and relating it to their personal growth from the events in Persona 3 and Persona 5. For P3D, the dream takes place during a pivotal endgame juncture where each of the characters have found their resolve. For P5D, the dream takes place after the events of Persona 5, where the characters have found purpose.

Despite the confined setting which ultimately doesn’t matter because of the transient dream conceit, both games still manage to have fulfilling character arcs that provide more insight into who they are. This goes double for the P3D cast, with a sense of nostalgia from seeing these characters in an exclusively Persona 3 focused setting again, and an atmosphere mixed with levity and melancholy knowing what happens after the dream ends.

All of the characters are written faithfully to how they were in their original games, avoiding the “Flanderization” which had become a common complaint in other Persona spin-offs. The English voice acting is of the high quality you’d expect from a Persona game, and dual audio for Japanese voices is available from the outset if one has that preference.

A neat touch in Social mode is that, as you progress through the events, you’ll get to explore each of the characters’ rooms. Most of them haven’t been seen in the series before, but they were all faithfully designed to look exactly how you’d expect the characters’ rooms to look like.

However, evoking P4D once more, Dancing All Night had an extensive story mode with a large amount of voiced dialogue, animated cutscenes, story illustrations, branching paths, and original characters. While I appreciate that P3D and P5D are more about exploring the characters fans fell in love with rather than a brand new story to engage in, it also gives off an overt feeling that the new games lack ambition; a feeling that is present elsewhere.

As with P4D, the new games’ character models and backgrounds are beautiful. This is also much more apparent in P3D, where it’s the first time we see these characters and environments with the fidelity we’d expect if Persona 3 were to be released today. In “Social” mode, characters have fun facial expressions and animations, all meticulously timed with dialogue delivery, and granting it a liveliness you wouldn’t expect.

If you played P4D, you’ll know exactly how P3D and P5D operate as rhythm games. The notes appear from the center, and move towards six different locations corresponding to directional inputs and buttons. The notes need to be hit in time with the music, and there are different kinds: regular, single notes; “Unison Notes” which need to be hit with two different buttons simultaneously; “Hold Notes” where a button must be held and released in rhythm; and “Scratch Rings” which act as optional, interstitial rhythm beats, hit by pressing the L/R trigger or by flicking the analog stick.

The only mechanical change is the addition of “Double Notes,” where you need to press a button twice in a row. This one feels redundant with single notes placed close to each other. Other than that, the games play the same: there are four difficulty settings, and the “Hype Gauge” acts as your life bar. The more notes you hit, the more the Hype Gauge will increase, while missing notes lowers it. The Hype Gauge needs to be in the green at the end of a song to clear it.

While note charts were a controversial aspect of P4D—with many finding them arrhythmic at times—they’ve improved and are more in line with what you’d expect in a traditional rhythm game, with the composer Ryota Kozuka updating the music charts himself. However, P4D’s lopsided difficulty has not changed. Because of how the Hype Gauge operates, missing a few notes near the end of a song can mean you won’t clear it, even if you had played the song perfectly until that point.

While they look silly at times, the dance choreography for the characters feels appropriate to who they are, and the models have less clipping than in P4D, so accessories and costumes (unlocked by completing Social events) look better in motion.

“Fever Time,” where two characters dance at once by hitting three “Fever Scratch Rings” before a certain section of a song, makes its return. In P3D/P5D, however, it is also possible to assign two separate dance partners to one song—a functionality unlocked after finishing a specific Social event—instead of the option to only have one at a time in P4D. These unique and plentiful duets are full of charm, and while you’ll be missing them while paying attention to the actual rhythm game, they will make you want to go into the “Perfect Play” mode just so you can watch the characters go at it.

Speaking of the quality of life addition with the partners, P3D and P5D have a variety of customizable options to tailor how you want to play, just like with the first game. “Support” options are available, lowering one’s score but making certain aspects of the songs easier, like being able to have the game automatically hit Scratches. Adversely, you can make the game more difficult with “Challenge” items, increasing your score with effects like the song immediately ending if one’s combo breaks.

The big negative when it comes to the gameplay is the lack of content. In pure numbers: P4D had 27 songs in the base game (without counting any DLC, free or otherwise); P3D and P5D both have 25 songs. All but 1 of the P4D songs had choreographed dance sequences with the models; P3D/P5D each have 5 songs which are composed of still images or reused footage from previous projects. Most of the songs in P4D took place on elaborate, animated dance stages and ended with a persona summoning sequence playing an instrument from the respective characters; most of the stages in P3D/P5D are static, and there is no stylish flourish at the end of the songs. And so on.

For the music itself, many choices in the lists are different versions of the same song, and that results in a lack of variety when the lists have become shorter compared to P4D. The full versions of the original, opening themes of P3D/P5D aren’t even included in the base games (in their place arer shortened “OP” versions).

In P5D’s case, there are fewer remixes relative to P3D. And since I enjoyed playing the P3D songs more than the P5D ones, and that P5D has a problem with many of its songs being lengthier than I would like, it was hard to find songs in P5D I actually wanted to go back to once I cleared them.

While P3D and P5D are their own games, it’s easy—and necessary—to compare them to Persona 4: Dancing All Night because of how they all share the same framework. And, from the lack of aesthetic flourishes for the dances, to the downsizing of a narrative component (including the complete removal of story illustrations and animated cutscenes), to the reduced music selection, P3D and P5D feel wanting compared to the expectations P4D put in place. Even minor elements like a “Database” with descriptions of characters from the world of Persona 4 in P4D are conspicuously missing in P3D and P5D.

As fully priced games, it’s difficult to recommend either Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight or Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight unless you really want to see more charming interactions between the Persona 3/5 characters, which the games thankfully excel at. Although one’s opinion will rely significantly on whether they have more of an inclination for Persona 3 or for Persona 5, I preferred P3D over P5D because of its more appropriate music for a rhythm game, along with the fascination of seeing its revamped models and environments, based on the original game from 2006.