As a child of the Indian diaspora, Raji: An Ancient Epic poses an exciting proposition to me. Eastern religions and philosophies have influenced some of the west’s most iconic stories—look no further than The Force in Star Wars—but Raji takes this one step further by adapting one of those sources itself. And that’s a great thing, because Hinduism is ripe with thousands of stories as thrilling as any you’d read in the Greek mythology pantheon.
The historical fantasy game opens with a narrator based on Durga, a goddess who represents femininity and, as with many, many religious myths, the triumph of good over evil. Durga tells me of a story of a young woman, the titular Raji, who wields the weapons of the gods against a horrible threat.
Her brother Golu has been kidnapped by the demon lord Mahabalasura, to aid the demon in war against heaven itself. And Raji, a poor circus performer, now has the fate of the world on her shoulders as she runs to save her brother.
I have a somewhat fractured relationship with my own religion and culture, based largely on being a first generation born American. I was born in the U.S., so the knowledge that was handed to my parents by way of their society and shared culture had to be sought out. Anything I learned felt less integrated than what my parents likely experienced. Things that my family would pick up from any Auntie or Uncle competed here with the Americanness of our schools and friends. Our culture was not often in line with what our world looked like. At home we had Diwali and VHS tapes of Mahabharata; at school it was Christmas and the Babysitter’s Club.
This reality, which isn’t uncommon among my peers, makes me wonder how many people playing Raji for the first time might come into it with a muddled connection to the source, or with no understanding at all. It is, after all, among the few games released onto a major international platform explicitly centering an Indian and a Hindu-influenced storyline.
There’s an important distinction there. Indian culture and religions are vastly different depending on who you are. Two people with the same regional background and religion can still have unique yet valid beliefs and experiences. There is no singular experience that defines Indianness or Hinduism. But for me, Raji is comforting and familiar.
Raji was created by an independent gaming company, Nodding Heads Games, headquartered in Pune, India. With Unreal Engine, the crew from Nodding Heads (along with developers all over the world) have built a game that is as compelling as it is beautiful.
In an interview available on the game’s site, the designer, Avichal Singh explained how a trip to Jaisalmar, Rajasthan inspired the genesis of Raji. “I was completely enchanted by the architecture of the forts and started to think, it would be a fantastic idea to have a game in this setting.”
It was incredible to play through Raji and recognize pieces of places I’d been visiting during trips to India my entire life. Leading up to the final boss, players will be transported to the intricate cross-hatched steps of Chand Baori in Jaipur, or they’ll find heavily stylized and regal pieces of the Delhi and Agra forts in the first level. Nodding Heads has really pulled the beauty of these landmarks into the game. The strongest level both in terms of look and action is Vishnu’s temple, resplendent with floating lotuses and waterfalls, and a variety of mini-fights and puzzles before leading up to what was the most exciting boss of the game in the demoness Rangda.
There are moments in the narrative when Durga discusses Raji with another God, Vishnu, and they disagree over Raji’s potential. Throughout the game, it’s Durga who believes in Raji while also pushing her forward with words of encouragement. Raji can’t commune directly with the Gods, but she clearly feels their influence on her journey. Vishnu agrees with Durga that Raji must defeat the demon lord, but he doesn’t fully trust Raji’s ability to do so.
The fracture between these gods makes sense when you consider that Hinduism is not a strict set of strictures. The religion is malleable and dependent on who practices it and what they want the religion to be to them. Much like Raji herself, it’s up for discussion.
It’s no surprise that the most compelling fight in the game is between two women. My interpretation of so much of Hinduism has been decidedly feminist; the stories I learned are filled with complicated, richly intelligent women in dire circumstance with only their own beliefs and strength to aid them. Such figures from Hindu mythology include Sita, a woman who threw herself back into the Earth instead of staying with a husband who chooses to believe other voices over hers. Or consider Draupadi, who was forced to figure out how to save herself after she was used as a bet in a game of dice. Then there’s Yashoda, the foster mother to the God of protection and preservation. All of these figures went on to influence Raji herself, and the central narrative between her and Durga. It was frustrating, however, to see that many of the myths shared by the game more generally focused on men’s stories.
Each of the three levels leading up to the final boss centers around a specific God—the first is Durga’s, the second Vishnu’s, and the third Shiva’s. Raji moves through each God’s temple fighting a variety of villains. In each level there are murals that she can stand in front of to inspect, and then Vishnu will narrate the story to the player. We learn Hanuman’s origin story, as well as Garuda’s, but only a few of the many tales tell us about the women of Hinduism. The construct and commitment to sharing the mythology behind Hinduism is great, but it does mean that much of the story is narrated to the player rather than experienced through the gameplay. But with that narration in mind, the player can contextualize Raji herself as the beginnings of a new myth as she fights to stop Mahabalasura from taking over the heavens.
Unfortunately, this final level and fight—while just as gorgeous as its predecessors—is lackluster in its action and in the presentation of the ultimate boss fight with Mahabalasura. Just before the last battle, you gain access to Vishnu’s Chakra as a weapon and the game has a bit of a Majora’s Mask Oni Link issue here. Without it, I imagine the finale would be immensely difficult, but with it, it’s a bit of a breeze.
Raji is an imperfect game, but no less fun for that imperfection. The abrupt (and to be honest, somewhat confusing) ending clearly sets it up for a sequel, and I hope that in addition to better integrating the story, visuals, and gameplay in the next iteration, Nodding Heads pulls even more women-oriented mythology into the world it has built. I want to continue Raji’s journey. It’s the first time I’ve seen a piece of my world in a video game, and now all I want is more.