Raji: An Ancient Epic is the kind of project that can only happen on the indie scene. An honest to goodness passionate retelling of myths and legends from Hindu mythology, drenched in the cultural reverence that comes from a studio-based entirely in India.
To claim Nodding Heads Games are ambitious for their first outing is an understatement. This is a third-person action game that must balance portraying demons and gods from the greatest of their stories, present a grounded and compelling narrative that a general audience can latch on to, and present rewarding and layered gameplay to compel them to the end. For a first-time project, there were a lot of ways this could have gone horribly wrong or simply tread water.
In the end, there were some stumbles, but they're forgiven thanks to great design choices and rock-solid design fundamentals.
Save Your Brother
The game starts with a familiar but functional set-up. Raji, a simple circus performer, witnesses her brother, Golu, getting kidnapped by demons. As she desperately searches for some way to rescue him, she is blessed with weapons and abilities by the goddess of war, Durga, and sets forth to fight back against the hordes of evil. This leads to her facing multiple obstacles including evil witches and corrupted temples, before finally coming face to face with the demon king Mahishasura.
On paper, Raji invokes some well-worn tropes. The central conflict involves a damsel in distress. The overall level progression and structure is a third-person hack and slasher with rooms full of monsters to fight broken up by an occasional puzzle, and multiple areas end in a climactic boss battle followed by cutscenes to forward the plot.
As mentioned before, what helps elevate Raji above such contemporaries is the sheer dedication to its depiction of its mythic stories. Everything from the architecture to the color palette to the distinct musical score reinforces the entire experience in the realm of larger than life legends and grand deeds of gods and demons alike.
It can feel a little too much like edutainment at times. There are a few sections where I had to examine several murals depicting stories of several gods playing out iconic stories before I could continue the plot, and a lot of them barely had any relevance to what was going on. All of it still works towards the game's impeccable atmosphere and tone, but it felt divorced from the story at hand.
Stand And Fight
The combat has a lot going for it. You start off with a lightning spear and the combat heavily encourages constant movement and spatial awareness. In addition to two simple combo chains tied to two of the face buttons and a dodge button, you can also pull off special attacks by either wall-jumping or spinning around a stone column.
For the most part, it's a fun take on a beat 'em-up. It can get repetitive since there is no way to purchase or upgrade any of your attacks, leading to a lot of attack spamming, but, aside from one or two boss fights, battles are mercifully quick.
My only major problems with the combat system lie in the details. There isn't a whole lot of audiovisual feedback when it comes to enemy attacks, which can lead to certain attacks feeling cheap. What doesn't help is the combat seems to prioritize fluidity of animation over responsiveness which can make certain actions like dodging – your primary form of defense – feel sticky and unreliable. Making matters worse is Raji gets stunlocked way too easily when getting hit, which can cascade into a wave of demons punching her into a paste. It got to the point where facing giant numbers of the superfast monkey enemies became exercises of wild button mashing over skill or patience.
Thankfully, these issues are smoothed out by a healthy amount of weapon variety and elemental abilities. A bow, a sword and shield, and the ability to unleash fire and ice magic helps keep the more annoying enemies in check.
Raji might be one of the best examples of checkpoint placements I've seen as well. One place after every single monster room, platforming challenge, or environmental puzzle. It lead to me having a very relaxed experience with the whole thing, being able to pick it up and put it down at any point, with any of my above mentioned complaints not completely souring my time.
In fact, Raji's greatest strength is how it manages to keep so many balls juggled at once. If one element feels underdeveloped, everything else picks up the slack. Even when the level design falls into a similar rhythm of monster rooms, puzzles, and precision platforming, the environment design keeps things visually appealing. Even if you messed up a jump, you've only lost maybe ten seconds of progress.
Even when it fundamentally amounts to a familiar action-adventure, the Hindu influences lead to some striking set pieces and vignettes. Highlights include a sequence with a giant peacock halfway through the story and an atmospheric trek through the desert that reminded me fondly of thatgamecompany's Journey. All of it is peppered throughout a brisk seven hour or so experience that doesn't overstay its welcome, leaving on just the right notes.
Raji: An Ancient Epic mostly comes out the other end with a lot of its ambitions hitting the mark. The story feels familiar but is given its own voice thanks to its unique cultural background. The combat has some minor issues but keeps you engaged, and the platforming and puzzle designs thread that perfect needle of being engaging while never taking up too much of your time. If you have any interest in Hindu mythology or just want to see this part of the world come to life with a controller in your hands, I do recommend it.
TechRaptor reviewed Raji: An Ancient Epic on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher. The title will also be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
- Beautifully Realized Ancient Indian Aesthetic
- Enjoyable Puzzle and Platforming Challenges
- Memorable Boss Battles and Set Pieces
- Occasionally Imprecise Combat
- Hindu Myth Telling Felt Intermittently Forced