My experience with games based on franchises from other genres has not usually been positive. You either end up with poor mechanics because the developers of the original franchise are stepping out of their comfort zone or the story and presentation look off because a new developer is handling the franchise. Persona 4 Arena avoids both of those eventualities by using the best of both worlds, and I couldn't be happier with the result.
The first thing you should know about Persona 4 Arena is that the developer pedigree is one of the best you can ask for. Arc Systems Works - the creators of the Guilty Gear and Blazblue - man the helms for this title brilliantly. It's really impressive how they can make something that feels like an accomplished and tournament-worthy fighter when playing but has such simple controls that the bar for entry is Dead Sea low.
Four buttons are all you'll ever need in Persona 4 Arena. Two buttons act as weak/strong attacks for your human/bear character while the other two are weak/strong attacks for their respective persona. Persona attacks work a lot like assists in the Marvel vs. Capcom series. While the Persona attacks, the human can sometimes do his own thing. When I played for myself I chose Akihiko from Persona 3 who is a slow and deliberate boxing styled fighter. His Strong Persona attack made a gravity field that could draw in your opponent so that Akihiko himself could easily reach him for a haymaker. While I admittedly got my ass handed to me it was still a lot of fun and even I could see the different tactics at play for different characters.
Some of the specific gameplay systems put into the game were also interesting. When your Persona is out it isn't invincible and can get hit just like your human character. Whenever it gets hit enough a card indicator near your health bar will decrease. Decrease it to zero and you'll be without a Persona until it slowly fills back up; things can get quite tense once your Persona's life meter is down to just one. There is also an auto combo finisher function which automatically does a super move if you press a button repeatedly. It does significantly less damage than if you do the super move the normal way but it allows newcomers to put out some flashy moves and at least feel like they have a shot.
On the other side of things you have the Atlus Persona team working with Arc System Works to make sure that the aesthetic is there, and it really is. Most of the original voice actors/actresses make a return as well, so it feels like an extension of the Persona 4 universe. Levels are even treated like channels from Persona 4's TV world. This feeling doesn't just extend to the aesthetics, though, as the gameplay includes classic status effects common to the Persona titles like Poison and Confuse. I don't even want to think about trying to play a fast paced fighter with all of my directional controls reversed.
If that isn't enough Persona 4 to satiate you, you probably need to get Persona 4 Golden for the PSVita. While for the most part it's the same game that was on the PS2 there's still a lot to love about this portable remake. First, the visuals have all been redone - they're now in a higher resolution and have noticeably better antialiasing. Textures and avatars have been redone as well. Unlike when Persona 3 was made portable there's nothing taken out to fit it into the portable format this time around.
Some of the most interesting features of Persona 4 Golden actually come from the bonus materials. By flipping through channels in the TV listings you can get access to various videos like anime cutscenes redone for the Vita's resolution or unlockable music from the game. You can even watch video clips from Persona Music Live concerts performed around Japan.
So, sadly, there's still no official word on Persona 5, but fans of Persona 4 should have a lot to look forward to in the coming year. Here's hoping it's enough to curb our Persona appetite when Persona 4 Arena releases on PS3 and Xbox360 on August 7th and Persona 4 Golden releases on PSVita in the Fall.