For all the talk about diversity in video games, it’s still a rarity for the medium to explore beyond Western-centric or, to some extent Japanese, tastes. It’s even more ironic when a game that’s supposed to appeal to an international audience also often means a Western English-speaking one.
So to put your Vikings, Romans and Samurai aside for one moment and make room for Raji: An Ancient Epic.
Not only is it the debut of Nodding Heads Games, a studio based in India founded by Indian developers, but it’s an action-adventure that fully basks in its ancient India setting inspired by a treasure trove of Hindu and Balinese mythology that we’ve only ever seen on the periphery of games, if at all.
The game centres around the titular heroine Raji, an orphaned street circus performer on a journey to save her younger brother Golu. At the same time, she’s chosen by the gods to defend her world from invading hordes of demons led by their lord Mahabalasura.
Given her background, Raji is unsurprisingly agile and acrobatic. She climbs tall pillars, leaps across chasms and wall-runs with as much ease as many a video game action hero. The game even plays a bit like an isometric Prince Of Persia, although the camera moves around a bit more, all the better to dazzle you with the stunning landscape and architecture of its mystical realms.
At times, the camera does feel a bit too far away, rendering Raji an insignificant speck, especially if you’re playing on a Switch Lite, like I was. Yet, it also makes sense as it’s like the Hindu gods are watching over her journey, which is the case since this story is being narrated between Durga – the Goddess Of War herself – and Vishnu. More than observers, they also lend their strength to Raji through weapons, firstly in the form of Durga’s iconic trident weapon the Trishula.
The game follows a relatively linear structure as you traverse levels until a magic ring or outline confines you to a space until you’ve dealt with an incoming demonic wave, similar to Devil May Cry. Combat is a straightforward affair with light and heavy attacks, as well as a dodge roll. There’s a slowness to your attacks that makes inputs feel a bit more methodical than just mashing the buttons, and it’s easy for an enemy to put you into several consecutive stunlocks if you’re not careful.
Fortunately, Raji’s acrobatic skills come into play as you can usually take advantage of the environments in your ad-hoc arenas, such as running up and leaping off walls to unleash an AoE attack or swinging around a pillar to stun a nearby enemy. It’s a kind of environmental combat I haven’t really seen since 3D arena fighter Power Stone on the Dreamcast.
Other mechanics include being able to execute a finishing move on weakened enemies to recover health, as well as a couple more switchable weapons and orbs that offer elemental perks to attacks. Occasionally, you might encounter one wave of combat after another, although it’s also broken up by platforming and some rather simple rotating and cog-turning puzzles.
Ultimately, they’re fairly familiar mechanics you’ll have seen in many games in this genre. At worst, controls can be finicky as I occasionally found myself leaping to my doom even when it should have been a very simple jump. And it’s not always easy to position a dodge or attack when some enemies move faster than your own inputs allow.
But what really compels you to keep playing is the rich Indian culture on display on virtually every frame. I was entranced by exquisite murals depicting stories of just a fraction of the many Hindu deities, recounted by Durga and Vishnu like old memories; the ambient strings of the sitar and ravanahatha as you traverse each area, suddenly interrupted by the excitement of tabla drums when a combat section kicks in. The inspired incorporation of Indian shadow puppetry is also a clever way for a low-budget indie production to convey the story’s more emotional and dramatic moments without glossy cut scenes.
I could have honestly done with even more of it, as just when you’re getting into the meat of the story, it’s already over in a few short hours – not quite an epic then. That said, the mechanics themselves also feel a bit too shallow that a couple more hours of fights and platforming would have unnecessarily dragged the experience out.
Nevertheless, it’s a sure sign that there’s a real appetite for more richly diverse stories like this. Much like how Raji grows in confidence as a warrior, goading her demonic foes after striking them down to Durga’s pleasure, it’s a confident debut from Nodding Head, and we can only hope it will be the springboard for them to make a real epic next time.
Raji: An Ancient Epic doesn’t reinvent the wheel with its well-worn action-adventure mechanics, and it’s over before you get to really delve into any depth, but the richy tapestry of its ancient India setting imbued with Hindu and Balinese mythology is a breath of fresh air.
- Beautiful settings and characters based on Hindu and Balinese myth
- Strong narration and inspired use of Indian shadow puppets for cut scenes
- Varied mix of combat styles that also make use of the environment
- Controls can feel occasionally rough
- The ‘epic’ is over a bit too soon