Raji: An Ancient Epic – Good Setting, Meh Game

What do you look for in an indie title? Is it a break from what can seem like all the triple-A garbage out there? Maybe just a unique experience from a smaller developer? Raji: An Ancient Epic is a little indie title developed by Nodding Head Games. It takes place in ancient India. A setting that doesn’t see much representation in video games very often. I’m all for unique backdrops, but how does it all come together as a game?

Raji: An Ancient Epic follows the story of the titular character, Raji, a circus performer whose younger brother is kidnapped by demons. In her journey, the Hindu gods select Raji to defeat the demon lord Mahabalasura and essentially save humanity. The story is fairly simple and straight forward. There isn’t really too much to say about it. I thought that the pace was a little fast. Once I reached the final boss, I was honestly caught off-guard. It isn’t even like I was expecting the game to be exceptionally long or anything. It just felt as though the game put more time into implementing the various stories of the Hindu gods than really developing Raji’s character all that much.

I just never really got attached or invested in her as a character in the game. She starts out as a rather determined character who just wants to save her brother. The game then raises the stakes to involve things much larger than herself. The character transformation she goes through from beginning to end just didn’t really capture me very much. It made the build-up to the final boss fall rather flat.

I also don’t think it helps that cutscenes, which are presented in very stylized 2D motion artwork, are told through the perspective of Durga, one of the gods overlooking Raji’s journey. It creates a bit of a detached feeling. I do like the idea of the gods telling the story from their perspective. I just can’t help but feel that it pulls a lot of attention away from the actual hero of this story. Especially since Raji herself doesn’t really speak too much compared to the gods, and when she does, her dialogue is kind of bland.

I’m not really going to hammer the voice acting too hard, but it can be a little tough listening to some of it. It doesn’t really feel like anyone gave Raji’s voice actor much direction. Either that or maybe she’s just young and inexperienced, which I can understand. The delivery of all her lines all felt pretty flat most of the time, especially in fights. It can be a little awkward to listen to. Durga and Vishnu are a little better. Though, Vishnu whispers all his lines. When he’s narrating any of the Hindu gods’ stories you come across during gameplay, it can feel like he’s singing you a lullaby instead of telling you a grand tale.

Raji
Image Credit: James Robinson

I’m not really sure what the developers were going for with Vishnu’s voice. Perhaps it’s just a cultural disconnect. Listening to him just didn’t really make any of the stories he was telling particularly exciting. Though, it was really interesting learning about all of the gods presented in the game nonetheless. The voice acting can just be a little distracting. It makes me wonder if the game would’ve been better off without any voice acting. I appreciate the extra effort to have it, though.

I also appreciated the different locales and the art style overall. The game has no shortage of epic vistas and architecture to marvel at. It also breaks up the pacing with a few environmental puzzles here and there. These are little more than simple matching puzzles. There’s a fair amount of them, but none of them take too long to solve. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t let you explore too deeply into its world. Still, some places do reward the more observant and explorative player with some more orbs.

Orbs are essentially the game’s collectibles. There are three types of orbs. One increases your maximum health, one gives you the equivalent of an upgrade point, and the last one gives you one use of your power move. You find orbs scattered throughout the levels. While the health orbs and the special orbs are pretty self-explanatory, I do like how the upgrade orbs work. Once you have one, you can assign it to any of your available elemental modifiers. The nice part about it is that you can redistribute these orbs any time you want. So, if you get bored with lightning and want to give ice a go, you can just transfer the orbs from your lightning upgrades into the fire ones.

There are three unlockable elements in the game. Lightning, fire, and ice. Each of them has three upgradable modifiers. Slotting more orbs into one modifier gives them a higher chance to activate during combat. The modifiers are pretty similar from element to element, though they all have unique properties like lightning stunning foes and ice freezing foes.

During Raji’s hero journey, she encounters a variety of demons that serve as enemies in the game and other obstacles to overcome. At its core, Raji: An Ancient Epic is a 3rd-person action game with platforming elements and a fixed camera. The game gives you four weapons in total to dispatch your enemies with. A polearm, a bow, a sword and shield, and a rotating disc of death. You can assign the previously mentioned elements to any of the first three weapons. The disc of death is kind of its own thing. The first three weapons all essentially handle the same but have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Image Credit: James Robinson

The disc of death is pretty OP, though. It basically one-shots everything besides the final boss. It feels like a weapon you should get for completing the game on its hardest difficulty. Though, since there is no new game plus mode or a difficulty selection for that matter, I suppose it’s a non-issue. It doesn’t one-shot the final boss. So, it’s more of a nice little treat leading up to the final boss.

Traversal options include jumping and wall-running. Jumping is more of a contextual action whenever Raji is near a ledge. Raji can wall-run on most walls and objects, either horizontally or vertically, and it can be incorporated into combat. Raji can also climb and jump from designated poles.

The main gameplay loop is the combat. Combat includes light and heavy attack buttons, a power attack button as well as a unique action for each weapon. In addition, Raji can execute a dodge-roll as well as environmental-context attacks and a finisher move when an enemy is low on HP. Doing finishers heals Raji during a fight. I do like the concept of this kind of combat system. The problem is that I do not think the game executes it very well. It mostly has to do with how clunky the combat can feel and how the enemy AI behaves.

The game rewards players for almost always staying on the offensive. There is little room for defense in any combat encounter. Opponents can swarm you easily if you aren’t careful. All of Raji’s basic attacks can flow seamlessly from any of her dodges. The biggest issue I have with this is that Raji has three different dodge animations, and they are not created equal. Some follow-up attacks out of dodges take longer than others. This means in the time it takes to dodge and attack mid-animation, you could get hit by an enemy’s attack simply because you got the attack, or dodge, with the longest animation. Raji’s dodges and attacks do follow a pattern. Though, it isn’t like you’re explicitly going to keep track of these patterns during a fight. This means that you’re effectively taking whatever the game gives you, contributing to what feels like a lack of control.

Attacking via a dodge means you’re sacrificing I-frames that the dodge would afford you if you didn’t choose to attack out of it. Though, sometimes the input window for a mid-dodge attack can feel a little tight. I know you’re essentially supposed to press both buttons in a sequence. This forces the player to commit to the attack and see both actions as one move. It just doesn’t help that if you miss the input window, Raji won’t attack at all when pressing an attack button after a full dodge. This would sometimes trip me up if I happened to dodge and then saw an opening for an attack immediately after the dodge but missed the input window, making Raji do nothing and possibly leaving her open to be attacked. Moments like that just make the combat and controls feel a little disjointed.

Raji
Image Credit: James Robinson

I also don’t really like the fact that you basically have to execute special attacks raw. Like, you can’t cancel into them. This means that there’s no reliable way to set them up. You basically just have to run into a group of enemies and let it rip. They’re just giant AOE attacks, so I do see why the game requires to do them raw. It just makes using special attacks incredibly limited. If I’m currently stun-locking an enemy, and a few other enemies surround me, it’d be nice to have the AOE blast attack to cancel into instantly. Instead, more than likely, I have to dodge out of the way and give up positioning.

All of this just doesn’t gel too well with the pace the game’s combat wants you to be moving at. Forcing the issue and trying to quickly take down every enemy as fast as possible was almost always better than methodically approaching each encounter or trying to be stylish. At that point, I used the dodge maneuver more in anticipation rather than reaction. I wouldn’t say the game is a button-masher, but it can lead to a sense of feeling like you’re just flailing around with relentless offense in any one encounter.

Taking the time to set-up an environmental move feels pointless when you could just overwhelm your aggressors with a constant offense. Environmental moves have the added benefit of more AOE. Enemies also can’t hit you while you’re airborne as far as I can tell. This is pretty good for crowd control situations. Not every arena you fight in or enemy you fight against gives you ample opportunities to even use these tools. Nor is it even worth it against enemies that you can manage to stun-lock to death.

The game also has no lock-on function besides the polearm’s unique action. This is discouraging because the auto-targeting is pretty unreliable, especially on smaller enemies. It also makes me question why there’s even a bow in the game if the player has no reliable way of focusing a target. It leads to a lot of moments where you’ll be right in an enemy’s grill, but some of your attacks will make you awkwardly whip around them or even whiff altogether. Since a lot of Raji’s heavy attacks propel her forward and provide a lot of AOE, I almost exclusively used those over any of her other options in most fights.

Trying to line up a raw, light attack almost always whiffs because they have very little forward movement, awful range, and no vortex. This means that you basically have to be kissing the enemy you want to attack for that light attack to hit. Taking the extra mobility and AOE heavy attacks offered just always felt like the better option when in fights with multiple enemies where you have to keep moving. Even if they take longer to come out, the added utility makes up for it. The light attacks are more useful for infinitely stun-locking an enemy in a 1 vs 1 after you’ve used a heavy attack to get in. Even then, it isn’t always reliable.

Image Credit: James Robinson

The bow is even worse, considering that Raji tends to aim in the direction she’s running in. I shouldn’t have to explain why this makes no sense with a bow and no manual lock-on mechanic. It makes both its light and heavy attacks feel clunky and inefficient at times. It’s even more baffling, considering that the game doesn’t even use every button on a standard Xbox gamepad. You could’ve easily given the player a lock-on function with one of the shoulder buttons.

I think a bit more fluid player control instead of everything being animation-based and basic quality-of-life design choices would solve a lot of these problems. You only have so much control over what animation you get anyway. The only thing I found that you could cancel into was the finishers. I don’t think giving the player maybe one or two more canceling options or just a basic lock-on function would make the game any more or less challenging. Just less frustrating.

If unreliable is the word I’d use to describe Raji’s combat toolset, then inconsistent is what I’d use to describe the enemies. Most enemies have no real pattern to how they behave, further contributing to what feels like the flailing nature of combat. They seem to just do whatever they want whenever they want. This can often lead to situations where the player can be layered by several attacks all at once, or enemies will just start looping the same attack or action over and over again. With so many attacks being layered over each other, they could force the player to dodge for a moderate amount of time with no opportunity for recourse.

The frog-like enemies, the clock-like cyclops enemies, and the monkey enemies that swarm you are the most egregious offenders. There’s rarely ever any flow to anything most enemies do. They just kind of mindlessly attack you or taunt you, and you just slap at them as best you can until they die.

A lot of encounters can feel incredibly luck-based because of this. I’ll die several times in one encounter before getting through it with no problem on the next try while never changing my strategy at all. Enemies are also less aggressive when off-screen and usually don’t try to find their way back on-screen. This is an issue in some of the larger arenas with the fixed camera angle. If you manage to isolate one on-screen enemy away from the rest off-screen, soloing them is a cake-walk. Though, fights in considerably large areas are few and far between. It’s just one way in which some more challenging encounters can feel luck-based or can be cheesed.

Raji Battle
Image Credit: James Robinson

Overall, little, if any, of these enemies are really fun to fight. I do appreciate that there is a fair amount of different enemy-types. The way they behave just really makes them a chore sometimes. Clearing out a group of enemies without getting hit can be fun. It just doesn’t really involve doing anything special. Just keep up a relentless offense. Maybe the enemies will hit you, maybe they won’t.

The bosses are a bit better, but not by much. They mostly involve waiting for them to do something and then attacking when they’ve clearly left themselves open. The second boss is a big example. It’s also the boss in which I found Raji’s turning around animation to get in the way of the gameplay. Bosses essentially turn the entire game on its head from constant offense with spurts of defense to constant defense with spurts of offense. Except for the snake boss, which essentially requires you to jump from cover to cover to avoid it spotting you before you reach the object that will defeat it. Similar to the Scarecrow sequences in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I suppose they’re all a nice change of pace at least.

Raji: An Ancient Epic is a nice, little indie title that I wanted to enjoy, but sadly, can’t really recommend. The setting and aesthetics are great, but the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. It just seems like everything that mechanically makes a game like this good was an afterthought for the setting. I wouldn’t say the game is strictly bad. It’s just mediocre at best once you know how to play around some of its jankiness. I’m just unsure how many players will actually want to adapt to the jankiness in the first place.

The $25 asking price is also a little steep as well for what you’re ultimately getting. The game is relatively short, which is fine, but the replayability is pretty much nonexistent. A new game plus mode would help with this a lot. It wouldn’t even have to ramp the difficulty up. Just give the player the option to experiment with every weapon in the game more comfortably instead of keeping them locked to designated parts of the story. Once the game ends, it just throws you right back to the beginning again on a new save.

If you’re in any way interested in the unique Indian setting, then maybe give this game a look if you have nothing else to spend $25 on. Or just watch the developers play on Steam. As for someone who’s just looking for a competent, little indie action game, I’d say give this one a pass.

Raji: An Ancient Epic is out now for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC.

What did you think of Raji: An Ancient Epic? Leave your comments below! And while you’re at it, check out my last review on Marvel’s Avengers.

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