I know this is going to come across as soapbox standing, but there really isn’t a lot of diversity in “AAA” gaming. Oh sure, the industry will tell you that their games were made by, “multicultural teams of various religious faiths and beliefs,” but the vast majority of games feature white, male protagonists and rarely do they delve into the cultures and mythologies of people who were on the receiving end of Colonialism.
This is why Raji: An Ancient Epic initially intrigued me. The sad fact is, I honestly cannot think of a game that stars middle-eastern characters, and actually prominently features their mythology in the same way Greek, Norse, or Christian mythology are. I genuinely believe that video games can act as a bridge in many ways; and I was excited to experience aspects of a culture I know so little about.
Unfortunately, while I definitely think it is an excellent representation of diversity in an industry so lacking—at least in the mainstream—as a game itself, Raji: An Ancient Epic suffers in a lot of ways that I fear will keep many people away from it.
The game takes place in ancient India, where a young circus girl named Raji and her brother Golu are performing for a crowd, when suddenly the great lord of demons, Mahabalasura, invades the human realm; seeking to avenge his defeat at the hands of the gods thousands of years ago. The demons capture Golu, and as Raji rushes to rescue him, she is chosen by the goddess of war who defeated Mahabalasura—Durga, who gifts Raji with her the Trishul, a versatile and powerful spear, and with her newfound power, Raji vows to rescue her brother, and drive back Mahabalasura and his demon army.
While “sibling fights through hell and back to save their sibling,” may not be the most original story told what makes Raji: An Ancient Epic’s telling of it so compelling that very little of it is from the perspective of Raji herself. While the player is guiding her, and experiencing the story alongside her, the story is constantly being commented on by Vishnu and Durga, who not only converse with each other, but provide much of the mythological context to the story.
However, where the game begins to fall apart is within its gameplay. Raji: An Ancient Epic plays very reminiscent of the PS2-era Prince of Persia games; combining a mixture of platforming with fast paced combat. However, unlike those games, questionable design choices make this feel more like a mobile version of Prince of Persia and hold the game back from being exciting, and oftentimes, functional.
The first odd decision is the way the camera is pulled back to an overhead viewpoint, much like a Diablo-style dungeon crawler. This immediately reduces the excitement of the game and shutters the pace, as not only does everything appear small, but it never lets combat feel personal and intense. Whether this was done to play on the narrative aspect that this is from the perspective of the gods, I cannot say; but it does a lot to detract from the experience.
Combat itself is usually more frustrating than exciting. While players are encouraged to use a combination of nimble tumbling and light and heavy attacks, there’s a distinct lack of feedback from attacks, and everything feels ineffectual. Raji’s dodging does little in the way of avoiding attacks, and enemies seemingly can’t be interrupted during their attack animations, which usually results in the player taking damage mid-combo, which gets even worse when the faster, and projectile spewing enemies spawn into a fight.
There’s just a general lack of control which makes everything feel sloppy. The platforming segments are a particular bother as where Raji is supposed to jump off ledges can often be a complete mystery, resulting in multiple plummets to the ground before you somehow find the exact spot you were supposed to jump from so she would grab a ledge. Furthermore, the camera angle can often cause confusion in where players are even supposed to aim their jumps, again leading to the aforementioned plummets.
Visually, the Raji: An Ancient Epic is fairly underwhelming. The game is said to be inspired by, “Indian mythologies such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, and by the medieval architecture of Rajasthan,” and this is definitely present in many of the game’s landscapes and intricately designed structures. Furthermore, supposedly, “the game’s environment is drawn in the Pahari art style and combines hand-painted textures, rendered in 3D.” However, and I really hate how mean this is going to sound, none of that really comes through in a clear way, and Raji: An Ancient Epic ends up looking like a low-budget indie game: ambitious but unpolished.
This, again, is attributed in large part to the bizarrely pulled back camera that never really lets you get a close look at anything to appreciate the epic scale of the whole affair. While I imagine these demons, inspired by Balinese and Hindu mythology, have a unique aesthetic—they certainly do in the paper-doll cutscenes—in game, they just end up looking like cheap goblin assets.
Much of the landscapes and architecture just looks somewhat generic, since you can’t get close enough to see the finer details. And I can’t help but feel like, had the game given the player greater control of the camera—or gone with pixel art to create some truly stunning visuals, ala. Blasphemous—then much of the art, that was clearly implemented with genuine love and vision, could’ve been better appreciated.
It really breaks my heart that so much of Raji: An Ancient Epic’s gameplay actively deters the player, because I truly believe it’s great that it’s the kind of game we need more of. Supposedly a bug fix is, “in the works,” which might address some of the issues with combat and platforming, but in its current state it’s just not enjoyable enough to warrant the experience.