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Upon my initial look at Raji: An Ancient Epic during Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase, it was love at first sight. A made-in-India game based on the criminally underused Hindu mythology, in which the environments were gorgeous and the protagonist was a fierce young girl cartwheeling through enemies and slashing them down with a Trishul. It was a game I was itching to get my hands on, and when I finally did I found it was, indeed, rather epic.

Developed by the Pune-based Nodding Head Games and published by Super.com, Raji: An Ancient Epic marks a first for the Nintendo Switch; a game made in India launched on the console, which is an incredible feat on its own. The Indian game development scene has been mainly restricted to outsourced work and mobile games, and with Nintendo having no official presence in the country, Raji is truly one-of-a-kind.

One With the Gods

The opening act is depicted in a cutscene evoking the befitting art of shadow puppetry – traditionally operated against a white translucent cloth as a screen, and a medium for retelling the ancient epics in India. With Maa Durga as the narrator, we’re introduced to Raji and her brother Golu, two orphans whose world revolves around each other and the small carnival they perform at. The day we see the events unfold is the festival of Rakshabandan, and we see Raji tying a rakhi to Golu’s hand, symbolically protecting her brother, as is tradition.

This is why it makes it all the more painful when a horde of demons takes away Golu, leaving Raji helpless. When she awakens, and the game switches to in-game graphics, we hear the voice-overs of Maa Durga and Lord Vishnu, as we head into a shrine for Durga. From their back-and-forth dialogue, we learn that Raji is the chosen one of Durga, as she grants her the Trishul, a weapon given to Durga by Lord Shiva.

Thus begins the quest to save Golu from the clutches of the demon lord Mahabalasura. It’s a linear narrative that initially involves just that initial goal, but as you progress through the various levels, you’ll discover the extent of the malice that’s spreading, as Raji cradles a dying child in her arms who deteriorates to ash. There are no NPCs to talk to, no side quests, and you as the player are only accompanied by the voices of Durga and Vishnu, making the journey a rather lonely one.

Along the way, you’ll encounter various puzzles that either unlock a piece of Raji’s past, or get rid of the corruption plaguing the land. There are also various murals spread throughout the overworld, retelling some of the epics that many of us Indians have grown up with, such as the story of Maa Durga and Mahishasura. It’s a nice touch that adds to the overall aesthetics and is a neat gateway for those unfamiliar with the myths.

Raji: An Ancient Epic

Without giving away any spoilers, the conclusion to the game is rather puzzling, as it ends on a cliffhanger and leaves you with a lot of questions. Furthermore, once the credits are done rolling, you’re taken back to the very beginning of the game, and the first cutscene plays out once again. I was bummed out that there was no option to go back and revisit some of the locations, or some sort of a higher difficulty setting that could be unlocked. I suppose this was done so as to lead the way for a potential sequel or maybe even DLC, but for those looking for a satisfying ending, it may leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth. 

Retreading Familiar Grounds

The combat in Raji follows traditional hack-and-slash mechanics, as you wield weapons once possessed by the gods. After you gain Durga’s Trishul and are blessed with the power of lightning, you come across more weapons such as the sword and shield duo, Nandaka and Srivasta, weapons blessed by Lord Vishnu, which became my favorite pick as they were the only source of defense I had as Raji. 

You also gain more elemental powers, with fire and ice being later additions. However, I found that as I acquired the next elemental, I moved on from the previous one, rendering them to be of no more use. On your travels, you can acquire different orbs that are somewhat hidden from the main path. These can be used to power up your elementals and string attacks. 

Combat-wise, Raji is agile and can back-flip and cartwheel her way through enemies, apt as her experience lies in performing on tightropes as a means of living. This allows her to jump off of walls and spin around pillars, allowing for some more powerful attacks and stuns. As a finishing move, you can regain health from enemies, and is the only way to do so as there aren’t any restorative items you’ll have at hand, making combat rather finicky. 

Raji: An Ancient Epic

This makes it crucial for you to save your health as much as possible during battles- the health gauge being symbolized by a mandala in the shape of a flower, with petals replacing the usual bars. Boss battles are more challenging, as there aren’t any other enemies you can snatch health from, rather one daunting figure with a whole lot of health. There were times when I was floundering around the screen, simply trying to dodge incoming attacks with the last bit of health remaining (of course, I would then get cheap-shotted after that and die). 

By far, the most restricting aspect I found was the camera controls, or lack thereof. The game will take over the camera for you and pan and shift the angle whenever it seems fit, but it makes for a frustrating experience when things get harder to pinpoint or lock onto. Moreover, I found myself mystified by the environments and wanted to view things from a different perspective, so I found it to be an odd creative decision that the developers wanted to limit the camera movement, especially when you can see all the effort that’s gone into fabricating the world around Raji.

There are a couple of other things that could be improved upon such as the interface through which you navigate the various weapons and elements, and enabling customizable controls, as the button mapping felt awkward on the Switch, but it’s nothing that a patch can’t fix, which seems to be in the works for the game.

Truly Enchanting

Without a shadow of a doubt, Raji: An Ancient Epic, is a game that’s a work of art. Its levels are built beautifully and the architecture captures the essence of the many forts and palaces throughout Rajasthan, whether that’s the adorned stained glass windows or the grand jharokhas – overhanging enclosed balconies. 

Raji: An Ancient Epic

My personal favorite location, however, was Hiranya Nagari, a city dedicated to Lord Vishnu. As the place is largely composed of water, you navigate through giant lily pads, pulling levers and gears to operate lifts. The whole place is quite ambient as you traverse through the night lit by lanterns and giant glowing lotuses suspended in the air. 

Something I found especially noteworthy was the utilization of the traditional Indian art forms in the game. The shadow puppet cutscenes themselves transition between two types of shadow puppets from different regions of India, one being the colorful side-profiled caricatures, and the other being a single-toned cut-out that better depicts the expressions. Of course, the murals themselves are inspired by Pahari paintings, a style of painting that grew out of the long-gone Mughal era.

The sound design in the game is just as significant. A charming detail I found was that instead of hearing the sound of feet against pavement, you can hear the jingling and tinkling of Raji’s payal – anklets that have bells attached to them. The music itself makes use of traditional Indian instruments, such as the sitar and ravanhatha. The tabla, in particular, had me button mashing as soon as I heard its beats, as its entry usually signified enemies approaching. 

A New Direction for Indian Game Development

In a market saturated with Western and Japanese-centric games, Raji is a breath of fresh air. At its full cost of $24.99 for the Switch, it does seem a bit pricy for gameplay that lasts around 6-10 hours, but you’re paying for a one-of-a-kind experience that you won’t witness elsewhere. It’s a game that’s crafted with much love and care, and reflects the vision of the developers through and through. Although it’s slightly rough around the edges, Raji: An Ancient Epic has ignited a dazzling flame for the future of game development in India. 

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