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Shin Megami Tensei IV's director reflects on the 'subtractive process' to game design

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Shin Megami Tensei IV, latest in Atlus's series of occult, demonic (and also really hard) role-playing games, is finally out in Japan — something that fills director Kazuyuki Yamai with relief.

"Counting the concept period," he told Famitsu magazine, "we've been working on this for four years straight, so it's hard to put into words how it feels. When I make something, I tend to not leave anything on the table, but with this game, the feeling that I've done everything I can is stronger than ever. This is something I learned from Kazuma Kaneko [the series' story writer and demon designer], but it's a process of subtraction as we develop. We focus on what lies at the core of the game, and we gradually cut away at everything else. Everything, including the characters and sound, is build up with this stance."

SMTIV takes a pretty new tack, with the game starting in an alternate, fantasy-tinged world before taking players to the familiar confines of a demon-infested Tokyo. "Fortunately, for the most part, people have told us 'Once I started playing it, it definitely felt like Megaten'," Yamai said. "This game features a completely new sort of world and characters, so I think people have both a lot of anticipation and a lot of nervousness. That's why I'm glad they're seeing it as a positive thing, and I feel like our efforts in getting the game setting and visuals out in the public eye before release are getting rewarded now."

That inherent SMT-ness is something that Yamai treats as sacrosanct — as he does the game's difficulty level. "In terms of game design and difficulty, we're aiming for an RPG that makes you feel like you're really blazing your own trail," he said. "To be frank, I don't think the battles in this game are easy, but building up your team of demons and fighting your way through all the trials is incredible fun. That sense of achievement that lies beyond the tenseness is something I'd like everyone to get a taste of."

The English version of SMTIV — one of the few M-rated Nintendo 3DS titles as of yet — is due out July 16 in the US. "I think a lot of people have reached Tokyo within the game by now," Yamai said, "but the rage of gameplay really explodes at that point. There are over 500 demons in this game, and we've taken pains to to set up their base skills and parameters based on their roles in mythology or legend. I hope you'll enjoy encountering all the new demons, and as you talk to people in Tokyo, I think you'll get glimpses at why the city is as desolate as it is. There's a ton of depth to the story here, and it really pays to read through it all!"