Ancestors: A Humankind OdysseyAugust 27th, 2019
PlatformPC (Epic Games Store), PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (December 2019)
DeveloperPanache Digital Games
We are at the very beginning in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, the first point where something resembling a human comes grunting out of the jungle. If you’ve read Sapiens, you’ll already be fascinated by the idea of early human adventure and survival, and Ancestors promises to let you experience it.
The beginning of the game opens on a dangerous world, where predators are still fighting to see who will be the top of the food chain. It's mysterious, chaotic and enticing. When I first took the reigns, I choose the immersive experience in the menu. That gave me a full tutorial but minimal UI. But after a very brief introductory sequence and thirty minutes of wandering the jungle aimlessly, I turned the UI back on to see what I had missed. It was more or less everything the game had to offer. I like games that let you customise and reduce the HUD where possible, as I find the barrage of information difficult to look past, but in some games, and I believe Ancestors is included, there is no point in removing that information until you understand accurately what is going on in the game.
Players will often be using their avatars intelligence and senses to navigate the dangerous Earth of ages past, but doing so brings up a variety of HUD shapes that dominate the raw natural world they overlay. In fact, much like early Assassin's Creed games (which were also created by Patrice Désilets), the UI seems almost completely at odds with the game aesthetic, with cold, clinical graphs and markers representing the rather messy process of evolution.
Ancestors is a game about discovery, rediscovery, and experimentation. You control a small tribe of early humans, and your job is to make sure they survive to pass on not only their genes but their knowledge as well to the next generation. To do this you control individuals much like you would in a third-person game. You’ll lead them through the jungles and savannas of a younger Earth and through the process of developing their curiosity and intelligence.
But to begin with, you know absolutely nothing but what your limited senses and can tell you. There are no finite objectives in Ancestors. Your mission is to try and make it to the next generation. How you do that, and what you pass on, is for you to decide and the game itself goes out of its way not to help you. Around your shelter at the very start of the game, you’ll find a variety of different plants, locations, tools but you won’t know what any of them do. From there its up to you to pick up, examine and in a lot of cases eat everything you come across to see what happens. I get that experimentation is at the heart of it. There is a thrill in finding a new plant in this prehistoric jungle and daring to see what happens but it can also be frustrating. Being poisoned or wounded can be lethal but you won’t know how to cure yourself until you happen to come across the right plant and try to utilise it.
I understand what the game is doing. Life was difficult and short for our ancestors and the only way they discovered how to survive those times was to see what killed their cousin and not do it. But as a mechanic, trial and error is not the most fun in a videogame. Especially when you have so little to base it on.
There is a strange feeling to the game, a feeling that there is something inscrutable behind the formless design. While the game world of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey seems to stretch out in front of you without any objectives, you get the feeling there should be some. Whenever you wander into a new territory or spy a new predator stalking the undergrowth, you get the feeling that the game wants you to do something, but it doesn’t tell you what. New areas have to be conquered by finding familiar objects within them, but from there you are once again left to your own devices. It can be frustrating at times not being able to peek behind the curtain. I think Ancestors also suffers from decades of gamification of the early human race. As I explored the regions of Ancestors, I kept expecting to come across ancient ruins or alien races that would hide secret knowledge and technology, because it’s hard to think of a game that doesn’t have some sort of remnant civilisation to exploit.
Some events seem to happen at random intervals that break up the game, but these too don’t unlock particularly engaging objectives. At one point early in the game, for instance, a meteorite crashed into the jungle. I set out to find the crash site, and after a bit of tree hopping managed to collect the stone itself. But there was no real reward at the end, and I lost the stone when a giant snake bit me too.
Progress in the game is determined through evolution. As you develop and use your intelligence, senses, motor functions, and communication, you’ll unlock new abilities. Some of these get to pass down to future generations, while others have to be relearned. You’re not forced to shape the humans we know and love today if you don’t want, but I found it also hard to get out of the habit. Even dozens of hours in I was using my intelligence more than my senses which meant my future descendants weren’t nearly as good at hearing and smelling as the predators they were hunted by, something about on track for us as a species.
Overall, it's an interesting idea that you can’t pass on everything you want when you move a generation, which you decide to do at long intervals in the game. The cult favourite Orehika: Tainted Bloodlines did a similar thing for the PS Vita back in 2014 but with more clinical JRPG numbers. But while it's an interesting idea, and a well realised one, it's not that much fun to play. I love games that let you discover things for yourself, but the raw aspects of Ancestors just makes it hard to enjoy. While it is smart, and often satisfying, it just isn't fun a lot of the time.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is not a quick game nor an easy one. Its difficulty, however, doesn’t come from the challenge provided by the action as in Dark Souls, or by the puzzles like in The Witness. Instead it comes from a mix of luck and courage. It feels very accurate to that a lot of how humanity survives is based on deciding not to eat the strange grey mushrooms you found under a rock, but again, it was hard to find the fun in it. Meticulously examining each point of interest when most of them are just dead trees quickly became tiresome. Losing beloved characters to bleeding when you can find nothing to stop it is frustrating.
It is an experimental game in every sense of the word. You have to experiment and the game doesn’t neatly fit into any established genre, which of course isn't necessarily a bad thing. I hope it feels an audience that can enjoy the self-made story it lets you explore, but I don’t see it having mainstream appeal. At its best moments, you enjoy getting swept up in your own adventurers, craving out and understanding a small piece of the world for humanity to thrive, but at its worst, it comes across as directionless, needlessly punishing, and frustratingly hard to understand. These latter moments, unfortunately, outweigh the former ones.
Review code provided by the publisher.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was such an interesting idea on paper but from its complex and unexplained environment to the severe lack of exciting objectives and goals to work towards, the game doesn't quite manage to entice the player to make the very best of humanity.
- A realistic (as far as we know, anyway) depiction of an era not often seen in games
- A satisfying series of evolutions and discoveries
- Players have a vague sense of propose and objectives throughout the game
- Self made stories just don't quite work in this environment
- While it's smart, it isn't always fun or eventful