A promising, 2-D-animated beginning introduces us to Raji, a young woman, and her little brother Golu. The two are alone in the world save for their friends, fellow carnival performers. Through voice-over, their warrior-goddess mother, Durga, recounts how Raji used her acrobatic skills to entertain a crowd on a feast day while her brother performed a puppet show. Their performance is cut short when demons kidnap Golu and the other children. In the confusion of events, Raji is knocked unconscious. She awakens in an unfamiliar area near the foot of a cave whose mouth resembles that of a big cat. Venturing inside she discovers a temple with a painted floor and a gigantic statue of multi-armed Durga. After offering up a prayer, the goddess appears to Raji as an apparition that cradles her in hand, offering words of encouragement before bequeathing her the Trishul, a staff-like weapon.
Raji’s journey to locate her brother takes her through flower-bedecked terraces, sun-splashed market squares, a night-shrouded area filled with pools of water, a celestial realm where staircases and hallways float in the air and along cliffsides adorned with large statues. The environments in the game are its chief asset. Bold colors arrest the eye without overwhelming it with extraneous details. As Raji travels about, Durga and the god Vishnu comment on her actions. One of the more interesting facets of the game is that Raji, throughout her journey, will often come upon radiant portraits of Hindu gods painted on various surfaces. By walking up to these and pressing a button, Vishnu will give a short explanation of the depicted scene. I confess, these snippets of Hindu mythology washed over me because their trivia is not otherwise interwoven into the fabric of the game. Still, I appreciated these asides. Hindu culture is not something I can recall encountering in a video game.
As Raji progresses through the adventure, she acquires other weapons: a bow, a sword and shield and a boomerang-like projectile. In the menus, one can equip different modifiers that add a variety of elemental attacks — fire, lightning, etc. For the first chunk of the game one has only the Trishul and the bow. The Trishul is best used when fighting against enemies in cramped spaces while the bow is effective at dispatching enemies at a distance. Although I was able to get away with button mashing early on, the added number of enemies in later sections caused me to rely on Raji’s parkour moves such her ability to run up walls and leap backward over the heads of her foes. Nonetheless, the combat in the game felt like so much rinse and repeat; “Raji: An Ancient Epic” doesn’t do much to expand on the hack n’ slash genre. Of the three major boss fights, I was able to get through the first and the third by hurling projectiles and dodge rolling without much thought.
The platforming sections of Raji are also generally unremarkable, although I liked that during one part of the game Raji can snip blossoms off flowers and toss them into calm beds of water to create lily pads which she can spring across. Aside from that, Raji can do the usual leaps and wall runs, though I found the controls to be a little touchy at times. In a couple of instances it seemed like she’d land on the corner of a platform only to fall off, but perhaps I misperceived something. At any rate, on the Switch version, I encountered a few animation problems where Raji would get stuck in the air while attempting a platforming section. To be fair, such instances are rare. I reached out to the development team about the most frustrating section where I encountered this problem and was assured that it will soon be addressed in a patch update.
I fancied “Raji: An Epic Tale” as a purely visual experience that taps into a rich cultural mythology which has, to my knowledge, been generally overlooked by the video game industry. I just wish that my appreciation ran deeper than the surface.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.