If you’re someone who was aggravated by the personal maintenance requirements in Red Dead Redemption 2, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey probably isn’t for you. That kind of busywork is a key component of this third-person survival game, which takes the player back ten million years, to the dawn of humanity in Africa. Your primary objective in this tough sandbox adventure: Can you evolve your clan of hominids faster than science indicates we advanced as a species in reality?
I get the feeling that Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey will be love-it-or-hate-it. And that’s not just talking about the Creationists. The game – the first released title from Assassin’s Creed creator and creative director Patrice Désilets, and his new studio Panache Digital Games – is challenging in every department. But that’s kind of the point. Ancestors prioritises experimentation.
In fact, the game opens with the text “Good luck. We won’t help you much.” Although you can choose the level of assistance and immersion, from Total, with its full HUD and tutorial, to Riveting, which removes both components, the player is largely on their own. There isn’t even a conventional world map for navigation; only remembered landmarks. If I hadn’t had a Review Notes document with some basic advice, I likely would have remained lost, and my lineage stuck in the very first stage of development. How largely unaided gamers at home fare, we’ll see very soon, with the PC version of Ancestors hitting the Epic Games Store tomorrow, Tuesday, 27 August.
Try, try and try again
Ancestors is a try, try and try again gaming experience. This includes the controls (controller play is recommended over keyboard and mouse), which typically have a press-and-hold dynamic. Whether grooming a clans-mate to prepare them for bonding, or crafting tools from found resources, the player must time their button release according to aural cues. This takes some mastering. Mess up, and that branch may shatter in your hands, forcing you to trek off and retrieve another one.
Even worse, a series of unfortunate events can swiftly lead to the end of your lineage. There is no good or bad play style in Ancestors, but if all the hominids in your clan die, it’s game over and you need to start again with a new clan. Between food poisoning, a cold snap and a chain of encounters with a green mamba, rock python and prehistoric big cat, my first clan, Adamsmaximus, was decimated within twenty minutes of the first calamity.
No question about it, Ancestors is unforgiving, especially with its autosave-only functionality, which prevents backtracking to fix your mistakes. The game’s primary tip for survival is to behave as if you were in the apes’ situation yourself. As such, you always have to be alert, switching continually between Intelligence and your Senses (smelling and hearing) as you explore your environment. Failure to do that will likely result in a very bad time, as the world’s predators get the jump on you.
Expand. Evolve. Explore. And repeat.
Eat. Drink. Sleep. These survival genre staples are all core to Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. They’re dull too, holding the player back, particularly in terms of the exploration and expansion part of the game. Exploration is slowed when you find yourself in an area of the open world without food or water, and have to retreat – if you aren’t disorientated – to an already identified source of sustenance.
Regardless, you have to accomplish feats in the areas of Expansion, Exploration and Evolution as a requisite for an evolutionary jump. These feats can range from intimidating an enemy for the first time to crafting tools. There’s just no Achievements list to tick off for evolution guidance: all the accomplishments are blurred until you complete them.
Also far more interesting than eat, drink and sleep requirements are the Neuronal nodes you unlock in such categories as Mobility, Communication, Senses and Intelligence. In short, repeatedly doing something develops skills and advances your clan. For example, if you inspect your food sources regularly, you unlock the ability to speed up that process (which is crucial given all the lurking environmental threats). If you wade often in streams, you’ll progress towards longer periods of standing upright in water and even, eventually, swimming.
At the same time, you want to be around, or piggybacking, your clan’s babies while you perform these actions. Following the “monkey see, monkey do” principle, the babies’ presence generates Neuronal energy (of course unindicated to the player), which allows you to connect up the Neuronal nodes you’ve accessed. Also, the number of juveniles you have in a clan will allow you to lock down these advances when you choose to make an evolutionary leap. If you don’t, you have to connect them up again with new Neuronal energy. So, switch between your clan members to get your fertile hominids paired up and WooHooing. You might even access some key genetic mutations in newer generations of your lineage.
A mostly sophisticated sandbox for adults
For players interested in historical accuracy, Ancestors is “inspired by the latest scientific discoveries.” The game isn’t heavy-handed with its human palaeontology education but it feels convincing to the interested layperson. You can’t fault the game’s atmospheric sound design and score, for the record. The lush visuals are also a treat, changing as the world evolves from tropical forest valleys to flatter open savannah studded with baobab-esque trees.
For the most part, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey feels like an appreciably mature-minded and credible survival game meets society simulation. The only drawback is certain gameplay mechanics that feel a little too videogame-y, and pull you out of the game’s reality. For example, while eating medicinal leaves to counteract a poison rings true, consuming fruit to provide a buff against bone breaks doesn’t.
The tug of war between compulsion and frustration
It’s honestly difficult to score Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey because its deliberate opaqueness – its high level of challenge – makes it as compelling as it is frustrating. As a player, you experience a surge of accomplishment and motivation as you stumble over a new discovery, like an emerald which will contribute to your clan’s spiritual development, or the realisation that obsidian stone, as opposed to granite, is great for sharpening sticks. However, these moments are interspersed with long periods where you’re going through the monotonous motions, with player and ape alike scratching their head over how exactly to get inside the coconut they just found. Whether you find this continual hint-free puzzle-solving rewarding or frustrating will be an individual response.
The same goes for how hard you find the game’s action-survival component. Game over in Ancestors isn’t as meaningless as it is in, say, Spelunky. Even though you’re encouraged to advance swiftly through generations, which kills off the elders in your clan, you come to care for your hominids. You can even customise their names. If you spend enough time expanding their numbers and creating a solid skills foundation for the next generation, it’s infuriating to lose all that investment (of time, energy and emotion) to the harshness of the game world. My second lineage, Eveaoptimus, was thriving until a big cat sauntered into my settlement. In this instance, while my playable hominid was initially safe up a tree, I morally just couldn’t stay there as the babies of my clan screeched and panicked on the ground.
With every individual death and/or extinction, cue the frustratingly long cutscenes and a slog to return to that same point with a new clan. Of course, there will be those players who embrace the challenge and those who will be put off by it. Honestly, it will be interesting to see who can get their lineage all the way to the game’s “end” period – 2 million years before today.
Ultimately, there is no rushing in Ancestors, and there shouldn’t be. In fact, loading and pause screens, which are rare sources of in-game advice, remind the player to take their time. The game is a savoured experience, like a good glass of wine or whiskey. For those undeterred by its lack of hand-holding, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey will be one of those titles you play intermittently for months, if not years. Although far from stress-free, it’s ideal for a period of downtime or gap between the big gaming releases of the moment.
An experimental and ambitious game that actually delivers on its promises, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is available from 27 August for PC via the Epic Games Store. It releases digitally for PS4 and Xbox One in December.
Last Updated: August 26, 2019