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Shin Megami Tensei 4's director talks about the series and its 'punk' ethos

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Shin Megami Tensei 4, the latest in Atlus' series of thought-provoking, demon-melding, generally mind-bending RPGs, is hitting the 3DS in Japan in four scant weeks. It's funny, though. Despite being the first numbered title in the series since Nocturne a decade ago, it seems like there still isn't much that's been revealed about the game itself.

That's changing, though, now that Atlus is launching a press blitz over in Japan for SMT4. As part of that, Kazuyuki Yamai, the game's director, sat down with Famitsu magazine this week to answer a few questions about his project.

For a Nintendo 3DS title, SMT4 has been under development for a surprisingly long time. "I first started thinking about this project once Strange Journey, which came out October 2009, was finished," Yamai said. "I've been hearing from fans who wanted an 'official' SMT sequel for ages, and we thought that we were finally at the point as a team where we were mature enough to tackle the job, so that's how it got started."

What's Yamai's inspiration here? "In the simplest of terms, the concept here was to make this a 'punk' kind of game," he replied. "If you look at the first Shin Megami Tensei, which came out on the Super NES 20 years ago, it was a completely different game from the fantasy RPGs of the time. It was very much the antithesis of that, and it had this sort of punk spirit to it as a result. I want to see that inherited by SMT4 as well. There are lots of games that you know what you're getting into well in advance, but I want to make a game that speaks to people's viewpoints and values, one that sort of traumatizes its players in a good way."

Kazuma Kaneko, the series' main demon designer and story guy, is back for this game as well, something you can tell Yamai definitely digs. "Personally speaking," he said, "one of the reasons I decided I wanted to join Atlus was because while I was job hunting, I read an interview in Famitsu with Kaneko. He was dressed all in black for this interview, and I thought, 'Wow, this must be a really crazy place to work.' I guess I've always been attracted to this 'punk' atmosphere that way."

SMT4 begins in the land of Eastern Mikado, a fantasy-ish realm where corps of samurai take action to protect the world from demons. "This was Kaneko's idea," Yamai said, "and from the initial story concepts, there was this drive to depict a 'modern era' that's different from what's come before. Mikado is highly reminiscent of the Middle Ages, so it's very different in terms of civilization and values from what we're familiar with. So what would happen if the 'samurai' defeating demons in this world suddenly visited a modern Tokyo that was being consumed by these demons? They'll be able to explore and take action in this world from a completely impartial perspective, their values clashing against ours. I think we wanted to add something new to SMT4, and that approach wound up being the perfect thing."

The non-demon character designs in SMT4 were handled by Masayuki Doi. This is his first SMT project; until now, he'd mainly be known in the States for his graphic work on the Trauma Center games. "He's capable of making these simple-looking characters that still strike a major presence," Yamai said. "Getting him was part of that 'punk' philosophy that I wanted to bring to this game. We worked closely together, exchanging opinions as we tried to keep the characters as simple and free of excess frills as possible."

With the game coming out May 23 in Japan, what do people have to look forward to? "Compared to previous SMT games," Yamai replied, "the characters and demons look a lot different here. I'm sure there are fans wondering what's up, as well as people taking an interest in the series for the first time. Once they pick up the game, I think they'll really be able to get a taste of what lies at the core of the series."