Raji: An Ancient Epic (Switch) REVIEW – Not Quite Epic
October 15, 2020
Nodding Head Games
PC, PS4, XB1, NS
Video games love mythology. From Nintendo’s Kid Icarus to the God of War series tackling Ragnarok, to GOTYcontenderHades, gaming is no stranger to cribbing whole stories, events, and characters from the established lore of the world’s myriad religions and cultures. These are some of the oldest stories known to humanity, so it stands to reason that video games, one of humanity’s newer art forms, would want to spin these centuries-old stories into new directions. However, in western pop culture at least, the myths we explore tend to be very preoccupied with the usual hits of Greek and Norse pantheons, with few exceptions. Raji: An Ancient Epic is one such exception, casting our mind’s eye into Indian mythology.
Raji: An Ancient Epic is an isometric action-adventure game, the first from Nodding Heads Games, a studio based in Pune, Maharashtra, India. You control the titular Raji as she tries to rescue her brother from the clutches of evil demons, with the help of various deities of Hindu myth and legend. Similar to Prince of Persia, you control Raji as she fights off demons on her heroic journey. The story is a straightforward hero’s journey, made more memorable by how it’s told, rather than the story it tells.
All throughout the game, your adventure is narrated by Hindu deities, as Durga and Vishnu discuss Raji’s potential as a hero and whether or not they actually believe in her. It’s a very funny way to set up the traditional ‘chosen one’ idea, humanizing Raji as well as endearing these deities to the player. Raji also encounters various murals of major events in Hindu lore during her adventures, wherein the Gods give some insight to certain events in Hindu mythology. These story beats are perfectly-paced slices of insight that never pull focus or overstay their welcome.
The game’s visuals make a stellar first impression. The story’s cutscenes are depicted in wonderfully-detailed 2-D puppetry with entrancingly fluid motion and weight that invites the player to suspend their disbelief and buy into this reality. Outside of these cutscenes, the gameplay itself is also gorgeous, with every background and surface full of vivid color and sharp detail. Some visual puzzles, like sand mandalas depicting events from Raji’s past cut into sliding picture puzzles, and vast gnarled trees of demon faces that have to be assembled in the right shape, are also gorgeous to behold.
Every character design has the same level of detail as the setting. Common demons move with animal grace, contrasting Raji’s much more human style of locomotion, and larger enemies lumber and prowl with unique, singular weight and centers of gravity. Boss encounters are always awe-inspiring moments, presenting beings of divine power and gravity that convincingly dwarf Raji and remind the player of the gulf of difference between our heroine and the forces she opposes.
The game’s soundtrack is likewise very well-polished and engaging, full of vibrant and kinetic songs that communicate the heightened danger and the thrilling adventure of Raji’s quest. Every new situation brings a brand new atmosphere to the music, yet it also always feels of the same world. It’s a nuanced and malleable soundtrack that nonetheless always feels connected to the sounds that came before.
Unfortunately, while the game’s visuals are eye-poppingly gorgeous, actually playing Raji is a much less enticing experience. As a mortal going on an adventure against monsters and demons, Raji is a realistic heroine, in that she does not control very well. Fights are tense and nail-biting affairs for the wrong reasons — Raji’s controls are floaty, awkward to figure out, and sometimes completely baffling, leading to an often infuriating experience.
The environment is a huge factor in Raji’s combat, as being near a wall or climbable surface lets Raji vault off of it for different moves, while vertical poles allow her to spin around and hit any enemies in a wide radius. These details are great in concept, but in practice they’re far too finicky, and how close you need to be to interact with these objects is arbitrary and inconsistent.
The various weapons you get offer a little variation in combat, but not enough to make the fights flow any better. For example, you begin the game fighting with a magic trident, and quickly gain access to a bow and arrow to tackle long-range enemies and shoot distant targets. However, most enemies move too fast for the bow to be useful, and while enemies sometimes spawn in distant places that would make them inaccessible without the bow, they almost always jump down from the perches to attack you head on. The bow proved ineffective in no time at all, and I found myself trying to hammer through the game with just the trident equipped.
The gameplay’s irksome hang-ups in combat are especially frustrating because of how exuberantly polished the rest of the game feels. Hitting another wall of interminable combat stung even more because I knew I was missing out on the rest of the Raji which I very much wanted to see, if only I didn’t keep getting stun locked by three lower-level enemies while trying to fire my bow a single time.
And yet, even with all my grievances with the game, I still find myself with predominantly positive thoughts on it. It is full of jittery, heartfelt energy, and while the game may not stick the landing on everything, it is a fresh new flavor of gaming, a mythology and a cultural palate that is rarely glimpsed in an interactive space. Raji: An Ancient Epic is far from perfect, but it still feels special, because it is trying to do something new — or rather, it’s trying to do something classic in a new way, which deserves celebration.
Raji: An Ancient Epic definitely deserves your time and attention, as it has also taken a lot of time itself to arrive. Its successes are intriguing and exciting, and its failures are from an abundance of ambition. While its combat is very flawed and very difficult to forgive, the game’s atmosphere, absolutely stunning visuals, and deep exploration of a mythology we Westerners rarely see in pop culture all deserve to be seen, heard, and experienced.
Review copy purchased
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While certainly rough around the edges, Raji: An Ancient Epic is an earnest swing that shows a ton of heart and some great ideas.
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