The early history of humanity holds an undeniable fascination. The question of where we come from can influence where we are heading, though based on the experience of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, it is remarkable that the human species didn’t die off before it began.
Ancestors is a somewhat unlikely combination of God Sim and Survival game, where the player attempts to lead a tribe of apes through the process of learning, discovery, and evolution to bring them to the point where they become the ancestors of modern homo sapiens.
The player controls a single ape avatar at a time. The goal is to travel through a lush jungle to discover what is within it, learn how to make and use tools, and find other apes to join the tribe, before passing on that information to the next generation. If an ape dies, the player is put in control of another, though progression within that generation is reset, and the learning process starts again from scratch.
The frustration of dying repeatedly becomes all too familiar as the player attempts to progress and learn new things. While the jungle is rich with things to find and explore, it is also teeming with lethal hazards, ranging from poisonous berries to venomous snakes, sabre-tooth cats, and even thorn bushes capable of shredding flesh like tissue paper.
Very little in the way of guidance is provided; the basics of movement and what each button on the controller does is outlined, but for every other aspect of learning and survival requires trial-and-error. As an example, if an ape is injured, the player needs to find a kind of leaf that will stop the bleeding, but frantically stripping the leaves off various bushes yields nothing, as the life of the ape slowly bleeds away. What goes unexplained is that once the ‘leaf essence’ is gathered, it needs to be ground into a paste with a rock, but good luck figuring that out.
No inventory system is present, so it even storing useful things like wound-healing leaves for later use is impossible. On the other hand, that makes a certain amount of sense, as where would a naked ape store it anyway?
On the plus side, the environment looks incredible. For what is nominally an indie game, a lot of attention to detail has been put into the plants and animals. The animation is also impressive, with the various creatures moving with a convincing degree of realism. This is reflected in the traversal system of the apes, which is activated by holding and letting go of a button to grab and release branches and leap between trees using built-up momentum. This system is quite satisfying and fun to use and reflects lead designer Patrice Désilets previous work on titles such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the Assassin’s Creed series.
The Evolution system is also fairly intuitive: exploring and encountering new things grants ‘Neuronal Energy’. When the ape goes to sleep, this energy can be applied to learn new abilities or improve existing ones. The interface for this is represented by an image of the various branching neurons in the brain of the ape. One of the earliest and most crucial abilities to unlock is the capability to use both hands simultaneously, which in turn enables the ape to make a sharpened stick, which can then be used for hunting.
Another positive is the way that the enhanced senses of the ape are used. Pressing a button shows an overlay that highlights things of interest that the ape can see and hear. Liberal use of this ability is critical to traversing the environment and avoiding hazards, such as snakes slithering through the grass unseen.
Patience is a virtue best cultivated while playing Ancestors. With so much of interest to explore, the temptation to rush into it is almost overwhelming, but that approach invariably leads to death. Instead, a slow, more cautious advance is often a better idea, regularly utilising the ape’s enhanced senses to discern danger before proceeding. The slow and steady method also works towards building relationships with others of the tribe, as to mate and pass on genes, a certain level of intimacy needs to be cultivated, which mostly involves grooming and backrubs.
Ancestors is a title that skews towards realism and attempts the difficult tightrope walk between providing a meaningful challenge and being fun. Though everything ‘clicks’ in certain, glorious moments, for the most part, the player is left in frustrated confusion. This appears to be by design, as the developers at Panache Digital Games have said that since the apes don’t know what they are doing, the same should be true of the player. Sadly, this does somewhat strip much of the fun from the game.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is something of an oddity. The game has a lot of depth to uncover and problems to overcome, but with a difficulty curve like a brick wall, many players will end up walking away in frustration. For those with the patience of a mountain, this is worth checking out, as the lush environments are beautiful to behold, and many fascinating discoveries wait to be made and passed on down the generations.
Reviewed on PC. Coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in December 2019.