‘Raji: An Ancient Epic’ Review
Developer: Nodding Heads Games | Publisher: Super.com | Genre: Action-adventure | Platforms: Nintendo Switch | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
“War is the means they are given to change the world,” intones Durga, master of weapons. She says this resignedly, something she has said before, hundreds of times. Her tone is weary, yet forceful; someone who has overcome countless battles and will do so again. “War is not the only way,” insists Vishnu. By the end of the newly-released indie game Raji: An Ancient Epic, players will have slain hundreds of demons in increasingly spectacular ways, but in doing so, they will also achieve something rarer: they will have learned a new story. Raji explores an uncharted territory as an action game themed around classical Hindu mythology. It entertains as well as enlightens, freshening up an entire genre with gorgeous visuals and excellent storytelling.
Standing Out In A Crowd
Released on Nintendo Switch in a delightful surprise after Nintendo’s latest Indie World showcase, Raji: An Ancient Epic seems to be just another action-platformer at first glance. This genre enjoyed its heyday in the early 2000s with the Prince of Persia and God of War series. A game like this comes with certain expectations. There will be different weapons to master, gorgeous locales to explore, and evil to be thwarted. Raji is a streamlined take on the games that preceded it, and brings something unique to the table. It’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time by way of Never Alone, the 2014 indie platformer made in collaboration with Alaskan Natives. Raji is infused with Hindu and Balinese mythology, showcasing origin myths and tales of epic battles. Greek and Egyptian mythology have been well-explored in video games, but this is perhaps the only game that weaves in tales of Hindu epics within its own story.
Raji‘s plot and characters feel familiar, but have their own original elements. The plot kicks off during the feast of Rakhsha Bandhan, an annual festival where an acrobat named Raji regularly performs. A sudden demon attack separates Raji from her younger brother Golu, and she sets off to save him. Such “Chosen One” narratives are plentiful, but Raji‘s protagonist feels uniquely sympathetic. She’s not a rage-fueled murder machine like Kratos, nor a quippy wisecracker like the Prince of Persia. Players get a sense of who Raji is not just by what she says but by how she moves: the joyful cartwheels and jubilant handsprings say more about her than most of her spoken dialogue. She’s a performer, confident without being annoying, caring but not cloying. Her younger brother Golu gets short shrift by mostly being a boy in a cart that must be rescued, but it’s still powerful to see a main character motivated not by revenge or self-interest, but by love.
The Eyes of the Gods Are Upon You
Most interesting is the running commentary by ever-watchful gods Vishnu and Durga. Acting as both spectators and bemused guides, these gods are with Raji every step of her journey, commenting on places she visits and enemies she defeats. Raji‘s camera angles reflect this; the zoomed-out perspective emphasizes that this game is essentially a folktale, a new chapter in an ongoing story. The gods bicker and banter with each other but overall they want Raji, and by extension the player, to succeed.
The weapons and combat in this game are perfectly serviceable and occasionally touch greatness. Enemies typically appear in groups of three to six, but Raji is agile and powerful enough to handle whatever comes her way. She has a particularly impressive dodge roll; it feels responsive and gives her plenty of space to escape a tough situation and execute a counterattack. The divine weapons she acquires throughout her journey are all taken from mythology and radiate power. Imbuing the weapons with the elemental powers of fire, ice, and electricity is hardly a new idea, but it works well here because it feels inspired by the mythology. It is always satisfying to blast enemies with chain lightning from an enchanted spear, and knowing that it was wielded by an ancient goddess who is now bestowing her favor upon Raji feels even better.
Raji: An Ancient Epic asks for players’ patience, and rewards it. Sprinkled throughout the environments are murals depicting legendary tales. With the press of a button, players can hear a story. They are there simply to flesh out the world; there is not an in-game counter tallying up which stories have been sat through and which haven’t. Raji doesn’t become more powerful as she listens to more stories. It feels wonderful to listen to a story just for the sake of it. For anyone unfamiliar with Hindu and Balinese mythology, this indie game and the stories told within feel like a window into another world.
A New Tale Unfolds
Raji features some genuinely breathtaking visuals. A cobra twenty stories tall flicking its tongue out to search for Raji is an especially terrifying element. The cutscenes look like jointed paper doll puppet shows, furthering the idea that the plot is a folktale-in-the-making. The epic boss fights, though few, stand out. The battle against stuttering child-snatcher Rangda is wonderfully horrifying and perfectly summarizes everything this game does well. It’s a challenging battle, but a rewarding one. Overall, Raji‘s brevity works in its favor by not overstaying its welcome, letting the images and stories linger in the mind.
Though short, Raji: An Ancient Epic is satisfying. The entire experience lasts probably eight hours, ending on a cliffhanger that will hopefully be paid off in a future sequel. The cutscenes and storytelling elements are beautifully striking and respectfully highlight another culture. This indie game is not without its flaws, but for Nodding Heads Games’ first outing, it’s a worthy attempt. Raji confidently steps into her own by the end of her story, and this indie game does so as well.