Nodding Heads Games, the small development team behind Raji: An Ancient Epic, is based in India, and their goal was to create an experience inspired by the culture and architecture that they grew up around. The result is a game that mostly succeeds at its artistic endeavors but isn’t much fun to play.
What Is It?
Although Raji has gameplay elements that resemble an old Prince of Persia game with light platforming and simple arena combat, the real focus of Raji is its expression of Indian mythology. The cutscenes are presented in a unique shadow puppet style, and the environments in the gameplay sections create a sense of wonder. The walls are occasionally covered in murals that portray different myths related to the two narrators, Vishnu and Durga, who often speak over the action to give some flavor and direction. The art direction is easily the high point of the game, but unfortunately, the lower budget of an indie developer along with the high ambition of their first project probably kept it from reaching its potential.
The narrative in particular often feels disjointed from the gameplay. The story is simple enough — Raji chases her brother, Golu, through a mythical land after he’s kidnapped by demons. The goddess Durga lends Raji four of her weapons to help on her journey as Vishnu declares that a simple circus performer like Raji has no chance against the demon king. The shadow puppet cutscenes appear throughout each level, sometimes directly relating to the action in the game, other times jumping ahead in a disorienting way. It feels like the story was meant to be more ambitious, but the restraints of development may have held back the gameplay portions from directly matching the cutscenes. It’s a shame since the production quality of the cutscenes is excellent.
Aside from occasional light platforming that is often finicky and never very satisfying, the gameplay mostly consists of combat based on the weapons that Durga doles out over the course of the game. This is where the game falls apart for me. The combat animations and sound effects lack impact and frankly feel amateurish, like the mechanics are five or six drafts away from reaching their potential. Despite having several moves at your disposal, the strategy for every fight is to constantly dodge and hope that an enemy doesn’t interrupt your attacks before you can land them. In a second playthrough, I got good enough at the combat to not get so frustrated, but on my first playthrough, I yelled more than I’d like to admit. Victory isn’t satisfying, and defeat is maddening. That’s not a good combination.
Why Should I Care?
Game mechanics aside, I do want to emphasize how authentic and carefully crafted the actual art is in Raji. The voice acting for Vishnu and Durga is particularly good, and the murals cover a lot of mythological ground. To be honest, the mythology frequently lost me since I have very little background in that area, but that’s okay. Raji feels like a game primarily for people of Indian background to see themselves and their culture in, since that’s such a rare thing in video games. I appreciate the fact that the developers didn’t try to water it down to somehow be more widely appealing.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Even though I have a hard time recommending Raji because of its gameplay issues, I realize that someone more familiar with Indian mythology may love the style and authentic renditions of the culture enough to deal with the frustrating combat just to see the game through. The lack of difficulty settings makes that a harder proposition, but I don’t want to dismiss the game outright simply because I didn’t have fun with the gameplay, when the core of the game is about celebrating a culture I’m not familiar with. At $24.99, though, a three- to four-hour game is hard to recommend even under the best of circumstances. I want to see more from this developer, and hopefully lessons learned from their first game will help make the next one a much better overall package.