Raji is a mid-powered game from 2020, not AAA but not indie pixel art either, and yet it’s straining the limits of what my machine can handle. Now, my machine is a 2021 rig, but graphics card prices being what they were at the time, I splurged on a beastly processor and skimped on a pathetic graphics card and hoped my processor would carry the load. For the vast majority of video games, this has worked out, but some more recent video games expect you to have a graphics card that isn’t made out of moldy cardboard as well as a good processor, and Raji has sort of been one of those. I am beset by processor lag and crashes and I had to turn down the resolution and the graphics quality to get past them. The thing is, this game’s graphics are pitiful compared to something like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate or Far Cry 2, which run just fine on my computer. There’s never more than a dozen or so moving characters on the screen at once, whereas AC:Syndicate would have to contend with five or even ten times that many, and the quality of individual models is comparable in detail. Raji has better art direction, but I don’t know why that’s putting more pressure on my processor.

My tentative conclusion, though I am no expert, is that devs are taking for granted that their users will have at minimum mid-tier equipment for the year of release and get sloppy with optimization past that level. This is probably a fair assumption, but since my PC is much harder to upgrade than anticipated (turns out the power supply unit is basically impossible to replace because of some kind of proprietary plug so only a small selection of Dell PSUs will connect to the motherboard, and Dell is out of stock for anything stronger than 180W with no word on when they’ll have the 300W back in stock or make anything bulkier than that), but it’s still frustrating when a game that doesn’t look any better (in terms of pure detail and power) than 2015 games my computer breezes through will cause the machine to lag or even crash.

But okay, what’s Raji like besides the way it interacts with my bizarrely min-maxed rig? Raji tells the story of the titular Raji, an Indian (dot, not feather) twelve-ish year old circus acrobat who has the misfortune of being in town when demons invade and kidnap her little brother Golu. Raji has exactly one half of the skillset needed to be the Hindu Prince of Persia, and video games being what they are, she acquires the second half pretty much the second she touches a spear. It is a divine superspear sent by Durga, the Hindu goddess of motherhood, war, and being totally metal (though it should be noted that like half of all Hindu gods are the god of being totally metal), but I’m not sure how much of the explanation is that the spear imbues its wielder with fighting prowess and how much is that we’re letting Raji’s acrobatic expertise carry over seamlessly into combat because this is a video game and we don’t want to wait until act 3 to be competent at fighting demons.

Either way, the game’s combat is very good compared to its most obvious predecessor, the Prince of Persia series. Like Prince of Persia, Raji includes acrobatic wall running and pillar leaping connecting together combat arenas where you fight spooky monsters. Unlike Prince of Persia, the part where you fight spooky monsters is actually fun, which is good, because it happens a lot more often. Raji is a master of the most important of all circus acrobatics, invincibility frames, which is good because the demons she’s fighting do not spend any time fucking around. While the combat is perfectly manageable on Normal difficulty mode, there is not a single enemy in this game that you can facetank. The game offers both an Easy mode and a Story mode (as well as some harder options) and clearly expects anyone who picked Normal mode over those other options to be ready to tackle a proper challenge immediately.

I really like this decision. In many video games, you’re thrown against some kind of weakling goblin enemy early on to build up your confidence, establish familiarity with the controls, and get you having fun before they throw a real challenge at you. In Raji, you have a thirty-second combat tutorial against some training dummies, and the instant you finish it an ogre of a demon spawns in to start swinging his club at you, and he will absolutely win a straight fight, so you have to start doing flips and shit immediately. He’s slow, and if you hit the X (on PS configuration) button your i-frames begin immediately, even if you’re in the middle of an attack animation and don’t actually start the dodge animation for another half-second, so the gameplay is not at all punishing, but despite being easy enough, it sells the idea that Raji is a twelve-year old circus acrobat fighting for her life against much bigger, much stronger enemies by skipping the warm-up.

And Raji looks great in a fight. She cartwheels and flips around when dodging, you can stun enemies by spinning around a pillar and hitting them with Durga’s divine lightning and you can run up a wall to jump off of it for a powerful dragoon strike from above. Prince of Persia had similar acrobatic attacks, but they didn’t offer much reward for how tricky they were to set up. Raji makes these attacks noticeably more powerful than your standard, thus encouraging you to actually use them. Each of the four weapons in the game have different finishers for different enemies, which often involve using the enemies themselves for wall runs or jumping points for flips before stabbing or shooting them mid-air. I doubt this game will hold my attention long enough to bother getting good enough at it for the no-hit difficulty option, which is kind of too bad, because its animations definitely sell me on the idea of being faster and cleverer than my stronger and more durable enemies, exactly the kind of mood where no-hit runs make you feel like a legend.

Unfortunately, a lack of polish does mar the game’s last few levels. Enemies are tanky to the point of tedium in the mystic ruins stage, and the final level in the desert of Thar has basically no opposition at all until you hit the final boss, who is also a hit point sponge of a slog. It doesn’t help that the plot’s pacing is so dreadful that there’s absolutely no story momentum going into this final confrontation. You bounce around different locations from Hindu legend pretty much at random and then when you’ve run out the bad guy turns up for a final confrontation. And then in the ending cut scene, I guess the world is destroyed or something? The good guys seem to fail their objectives, at least, but the protagonist and the little brother she’s been trying to protect the whole time both survive, though they seem stranded in a desert. If we take the image in the end credits as diagetic, they find a camel and make their way back to civilization, which has survived, so I guess the bad guy completing his doom ritual had no effect on anything?

The expository dialogue between gods Durga and Vishnu doesn’t stand out, but is usually fit for purpose. Sometimes the way they obsess over the protagonist’s progress from their position as unseen narrators or give vague hints as to what is to come is grating, but usually they serve their purpose unobjectionably. The opening cut scene is long in the tooth, but after that, the game is smart enough to have most of its narration happen while you’re running around and climbing on stuff, so it’s functional, and in fairness to this game, it’s saddled with explaining Hindu legend to an audience that cannot be assumed to have even passing familiarity with it. A significant fraction of this game’s target audience couldn’t tell you whether Vishnu is a Hindu god, an Indian historical figure, or a modern made-up name. That level of unfamiliarity can be overcome without resorting to somewhat blunt narration, but it’s harder, so I’m more forgiving of it than I would be normally, plus the dialogue between Durga and Vishnu is a lot more interesting than a flat narration by just one or the other.

Unfortunately, the voice actor for the character of Raji herself is atrocious. She’s barely passable for the first chapter of the game when she’s a lost girl in a ruined temple who’s picking up a spear for the first time in her life, and her delivery never really grows past that even as the writing sees her growing into someone who makes solemn vows to rescue her brother no matter the peril, threaten to kill any demon who stands in her way, and taunt a 50-foot tall four-armed demon swinging a burning flail in each arm at her in particular. I really like the character arc in the writing of the first half-ish of the game (before we hit the unpolished parts where the story becomes aimless), but the delivery lets it down.

The game’s visual splendor also falls apart in some places, although it’s hard to know how much of this is my fault for buying a weird configuration of parts for my PC. The game generally looks pretty good from a distance, and it’s zoomed out enough for that to usually work, but there’s a part where Naga, a giant snake demi-god (who they talk about like a specific guy, even though I’m pretty sure there’s supposed to be a thousand naga), is trying to find you like he’s Scarecrow in Arkham Asylum and you have to hide. The sequence, like everything in Raji, lasts a little bit longer than it should, but it’s very compelling when it starts, with this humongous snake looking around the arena, and whenever he’s looking near your hiding spot, specifically, he is necessarily getting much closer to the camera and hissing and stuff…except his model is designed with the same level of detail as though he were a regular size snake viewed from fifty feet away, and his size and the way he leans into the camera makes it unavoidable how badly his model doesn’t hold up to close examination. If he weren’t at the end of his level, I’d use the game’s level select to get back to him and turn the graphics back up, then just hide out under one of the safe spots and wait for him to do the close-up, see how it looks then. As it is, I’m not sure if this is because of my graphics situation or if the snake just looks bad.

Though I completed Raji, its second half was bad enough that I probably wouldn’t have if it weren’t so short that by the time I got frustrated with it I was already on the cusp of victory. My main takeaway from it is that I now yearn for a game that incorporates Hindu legend better, because that’s a real untapped vein for video games and there’s a lot of really cool stuff in there.

I haven’t yet tried out Morbid or Amalur, so maybe Raji is a fluke, but so far the lesson I’m taking away is that I should probably be more willing to let Humble Choice be a dud now and then.

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