While we’re stuck debating the ethics of teleportation and time travel, adventure games have taken us around the world and back. Any place, any time, any dimension — the genre is the ultimate tour guide. Yet, the industry’s obsession with a handful of staple settings has left many choice locales ill-explored. The same tired locations with the same tired perspectives do little to stimulate true awe. Raji: An Ancient Epic taps into the rich Hindu culture and mythology, transporting players to the India of yore.
Norse mythology has permeated every facet of mainstream entertainment, but Nodding Heads Games hopes to carve out a space for these older, more storied narratives. The game opens with stunning cutscenes embracing the art of shadow puppetry, transitioning to in-game visuals that are no less impressive. Raji: An Ancient Epic’s vibrant, detailed, and diverse graphics are the immediate standouts, accompanied by an authentic, lush soundtrack. There’s nothing quite like some sharp sitar leads while you’re strolling through sun-kissed temples and castles.
Sunny, sandy sight-seeing
Grab a ticket for the four-hour express tour through some of ancient India’s most beautiful and dangerous hot spots. Along the way, listen as Vishnu and Durga themselves narrate your journey and provide key insight into popular legends. As the titular Raji, the decision to go on this epic journey was an easy one to make. She and her brother, Golu, find themselves amid a demon invasion led by the powerful mystic, Mahabalasura. After the demons steal Golu away, Raji’s thrust into the role of the chosen hero, tasked by the gods to defeat the demon hordes.
Despite the gravitas, the story of Raji: An Ancient Epic is just an excuse to show you some fantastical vistas. Hindu lore plays a huge part in the experience, but the crux of the game is its exploration and combat. Raji is faced with several levels of different locations, each housing new powers, weapons, and demons to slay. You quickly become accustomed to each level’s cadence of traversal, fights, puzzles, and bosses. It’s a deceptively simple game; you quickly realize the complexity of its character controller as you traverse the environment.
Tutorial after tutorial, the game machine-gun fires mechanics at you. Raji can run, jump, chain dodges, wall run, wall climb, wall flip, and more — that’s not even getting into combat. Levels are relatively similar in what type of parkour challenges they offer, with the odd bonus mechanic thrown in. The third level, for example, introduces throwable water lilies to build your own path. Exploration is the game’s relaxing half; challenge is low, but the game rewards those with an eagle eye for attention. Player awareness and a mastery of movement can grant you access to hidden areas that offer orbs to upgrade Raji’s abilities.
Brawn over brains
Raji: An Ancient Epic’s less flattering half is its sluggish, tedious combat section. It’s never clear when a fight’s about to break out, but if there’s some empty space ahead of you, the chances are pretty high. With combat comes even more to add to Raji’s ever-growing arsenal. There’s everything from a light combo to a heavy, gap-closing combo, pole stuns, wall strikes, alternate abilities, executions, dodge strikes, and an AoE special. If that wasn’t enough, Raji can swap between four different weapons and three different elements for entirely new movements and effects.
You’d think it’s a recipe for success with its diverse ingredient list, but Raji: An Ancient Epic combat is simply not enjoyable. Despite the plethora of tools, what drag down the experience are the puddle-deep tactics and cumbersome controls. Enemies are vicious, attacking fiercely and frequently, encouraging heavy and calculated use of the dodge. Unfortunately, invincible frames are scarce, if not non-existent. Worse, animations are long and can rarely be interrupted. With the number of enemies on screen, you’d expect split-second dodges to be a vital part of Raji’s toolkit. Instead, dodging between attacks produces a “dodge attack,” which, ironically, behaves more like a gap closer, actually putting you in harm’s way instead.
No rest for the weary
Having multiple formidable foes on the field in tandem with unwieldly combat is a blueprint for disaster. The game’s second half is peppered with tough enemies, and having more weapons or elements doesn’t ease the pain. By the time Raji is gifted with the third weapon, there’s no functional incentive to switch off. The same is true of the elements, which all perform effectively the same, minus the visual flavor. By collecting orbs around each level, you can spec into certain passives for each element, which are nearly identical.
No enemies can be dealt with more effectively using one weapon over another. There’s potential for elemental properties to add spice to the combat, but it’s never realized. Over the course of four hours, I built up a mastery of the combat mechanics, but never did it feel like there was any rhyme or reason in regards to how I was being challenged. Bosses, while visually stimulating, don’t do much to test your skills either. Every new weapon or element is thrown away one level later.
Combat dominates Raji: An Ancient Epic, throwing a wrench into each level’s individual flow. That enormous sense of relief I felt after a long, tough fight was often interrupted by another encounter mere steps away. Every moment of respite was too brief, and before I knew it, I was pushed back into the fray. Had traversal and puzzle-solving eaten up more real estate, I’d be more forgiving of the combat.
Much of that downtime will be spent on Vishnu’s many stories, recounting classic Hindu legends. A good portion of the lore comes in the form of wall paintings that glow as the god ruminates aloud. Each painting, often part of a series of paintings, gets a minute or two of Vishnu’s time. But two minutes can feel like a lifetime when you’re unable to interact with other paintings until Vishnu stops talking. The cutscenes and monologues are extravagant and mesmerizing, but it’s a shame that the game’s most interesting bits happen when your hands are off the keyboard.
It’s easy to lose oneself in Raji: An Ancient Epic’s aesthetics, but try as it may, aesthetics can’t carry a game. The fusion of Hindu mythology and breathtaking sights and sounds is immaculate. The shallow, sub-par gameplay courtesy of a clumsy combat system tarnishes the experience. The game’s awkward balance of the two is its greatest flaw, and ultimately, that’s what players will remember most. It’s a decent adventure game with a refreshing setting, but that’s just not enough.