When “Raji: An Ancient Epic” appeared at Nintendo’s recent Indie World Showcase, it left quite the impression. The trailer’s striking visuals and driving music immediately captured attention, and its surprise release as a timed exclusive for Nintendo Switch emerged as one of the event’s highlights. But now that we can actually play “Raji,” the picture is more clear. In many ways, this game is bursting at the seams with creative energy: it has a vivid, exciting art-style, a thrilling soundtrack, and wonderfully expressive cutscenes.
But during the business of actually playing “Raji,” its flaws become more apparent. In its current incarnation on Switch, it’s hampered by technical issues. While developer Nodding Heads Games have built an enjoyable core of puzzle-platforming action, it wears out its welcome with repetitive encounters and finicky controls. While none of these problems completely spoil the fun, they add a layer of frustration to what could have been one of the year’s best indies.
Our main character is the titular Raji, a circus performer whose acrobatic talents are put to the test when demons launch a war against humans and capture her brother Golu. Raji is selected by the gods to fight back against the demonic armies led by lord Mahabalasura. She’s guided along this path by the Goddess Durga and Lord Vishnu, who also serve as narrators. Their constant commentary adds an entertaining layer of color and wit to the story, and while it doesn’t break much new ground, it’s expertly told, with quality voice acting and beautifully animated cutscenes.
One of “Raji”’s undeniable strengths is its superb ancient Indian setting. It’s a woefully underrepresented setting in gaming, and Nodding Heads have deftly woven Hindu mythology and history together with beautiful, expansive architecture into levels that feel big, even when they’re small. “Raji”’s beauty is most pronounced in its quiet moments. Basking in the sun beaming through palace windows, riding an elevator through a sprawling, ornate city, or loitering by a massive fountain, every environment in “Raji” is unique and absorbing. Credit for much of its brisk atmosphere is owed to the soundtrack’s strong melodies and driving percussion.
There’s plenty of platform hopping, wall-running and shimmying across ledges that recalls the “Prince of Persia” series, while combat plays out in segmented arenas with waves of enemies much like in the original “God of War” trilogy. The “God of War” DNA is prevalent here, from the character-action-lite combat to the simplistic puzzles. No one will confuse “Raji” with a PlatinumGames product, but its combat is still enjoyable. In the course of Raji’s journey, she’ll be granted a number of new weapons by the gods, including a bow and arrow, a sword and shield, and a spear. They each feel distinct and powerful, and I found myself using all of them equally, often changing weapons mid-fight.
While the nuts and bolts of “Raji”’s combat are strong, they’re let down by its encounter design. Fights can really drag on and feel repetitive when another wave of similar foes spawn into the arena. While there’s a decent variety of enemies in each area, the waves they’re arranged in start to feel uninspired in the game’s second half. Despite “Raji”’s relatively brisk three to five hour runtime, these repetitive encounters made it feel longer than it should have. Luckily, there are a few well-crafted boss fights along the way that successfully mix things up and force the player to use some of the new weapons and elemental attacks they’ve learned along the way.
The camera takes after titles like “Journey,” with a zoomed-out top-down perspective. This is both a blessing and a curse. The combat camera is positioned so far from the character that it can be difficult to make out detail. Fixed camera angles with no user adjustment mean that sometimes action is obscured and platforming challenges are more difficult than they should be. Combine that with touchy controls—the game lacks a dedicated jump button—and platforming begins to grate.
Unfortunately, in its current iteration on Nintendo Switch, “Raji” suffers from technical issues that hold the experience back. While the game is beautiful, its frame rate is inconsistent, and, especially in later sections, there are major, prolonged drops. It might be worth waiting for this game to release on PC, where the frame rate should at least be improved. A number of bugs also impacted my experience. Some combat arenas failed to unlock after a battle, forcing me to reload and repeat lengthy combat sequences. I had to repeat one battle four times before it would progress and when I reloaded, my Switch froze and had to be power cycled. A more minor issue is the puny UI elements, which are especially hard to read during handheld play.
Considering that “Raji” is Nodding Heads’ first game, they can pride themselves on many of its accomplishments. It’s refreshing to see a game use the rich cultural tapestry of ancient India so effectively. It’s got enjoyable combat, well-written music, and a charming story. But, especially in its second half, the experience can fall flat, suffering from repetitive encounter design and frustrating technical issues. Nevertheless, “Raji” is well worth checking out if its stylish adventure and fresh setting strike a chord. For such a young studio, still finding its way in 2020’s complex gaming landscape, “Raji” is a strong foundation to build on.