Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a brave game – not only because it’s an absolute headache to play for the first few hours, but because it’s wholly unique. It’s brave because it’s an educational game that has absolutely zero concern with being cool, badass, or trendy.
Developer Panache, led by Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Desilets, asks its players to meet them halfway. You’ll only get out of Ancestors what you put into it. If you fight through the frustration of the first few hours and stay invested, what you’ll find is a fascinating experience that can be irritating as hell at times but is unlike anything you’ll play this year.
The game starts 10 million years in the past, and puts you in control of a clan of primates as they struggle (and I mean really struggle) to survive the jungles and arid deserts of Africa. The ultimate goal is to race against history and evolve your clan’s lineage towards humankind faster than is documented in science books. You will evolve ahead or behind schedule depending on how you play, so every decision you make has the potential to slow or quicken your rate of evolution.
Despite the heady larger concept, moment to moment, Ancestors is technically a third-person open-world game with relatively simple controls. You run, jump, and climb through the jungle, which feels like pretty standard stuff until you realize that every move you make could potentially endanger the future of your lineage. Fall out of a tree, for instance, and you might break a bone, rendering your movement slow as molasses, which in turn makes you an easier target for the giant, fangy cat lurking in the ferns behind you.
But what doesn’t kill you truly makes you stronger: successfully dodge an attack from a predator and your reaction speed improves. Figure out how to open coconuts and your motor skills improve. Fashion a pile of leaves into a sleeping spot and you become more adept at construction. Good health and maintenance pays off, too – keep your apes’ bellies full with food and water and make sure they get rest, and it’ll significantly extend their life expectancy.
Environmental awareness is key to survival and there are three ways to scan your surroundings. You can use your sense of smell to scan for different foods, your sense of hearing to detect other animals (including other apes), and your intelligence to identify objects through memory. Frequent use of all three is pretty much mandatory if you want to progress in the game, and the more you use your senses, the more powerful they get.
Every action feeds into the game’s progression system, a skill tree represented by a cluster of neurons firing and expanding as you gain experience in the wild. You gain neuronal energy by birthing babies and piggybacking them around as you go about your tasks, and this energy can then be directed toward new neurons, expanding your overall skillset.
But the progression/evolution system only gets deeper. The game illustrates the passing of time with a day/night system that sees your apes age and gradually decline in speed, strength, and overall vitality. Periodically, you’ll have to skip ahead in the timeline to the next generation of your lineage, provided there are babies in your clan. With each generational jump, you’re able to reinforce a handful of skills, but the rest will have to be built up again since, of course, it’s a new group of apes. As the generations pass, more skills are reinforced, and your lineage slowly grows stronger and more capable of surviving the unforgiving environment.
After you’ve jumped a few generations, you can take an even bigger leap forward in the timeline, which will see your lineage evolve into a new species. These species jumps are more significant than the generational jumps in that a lot of the mutations that you set up in the previous species manifest in brand new skills that vastly expand your clan’s capabilities.
We could easily go on and on forever about the game’s multitude of mechanics and sub-mechanics, but the bottom line is that the game isn’t fun unless you’re comfortable with figuring the mechanics out on your own. The provided tutorials are super limited and only give you a rough idea of how the game works, so to survive, there’s a lot of trial and error involved. My first attempt resulted in a snuffed out lineage before I could even make my first generational jump, mostly because I hadn’t learned to experiment in the right ways. For example, my apes kept getting torn to shreds by jungle cats and they’d either bleed out slowly over time or straight-up get devoured in seconds.
This was incredibly frustrating until I figured out how to time my dodges and I learned that the fibres I found in the treetops stopped my apes’ bleeding when applied. These discoveries were thrilling, but not nearly as thrilling as when I figured out how to fashion a dead branch into a spear and I stuck it into the ribs of the cat that had been incessantly terrorizing my clan. The true beauty of the gameplay lies in these revelations and moments of successful experimentation.
But sometimes these “eureka” moments aren’t enough to offset some of the game’s glaring weaknesses, and this is when it becomes extremely difficult to find the motivation to continue playing. The most problematic aspect of the game is the traversal. In a game designed by former Assassin’s Creed developers, where you play as an ape living in a jungle, you’d probably expect that swinging and bounding around the jungle would be an absolute blast, but you’d be wrong. Movement, even with the healthiest of apes, is aggravatingly slow by modern standards. And there were times when I’d be climbing up a rock face and I’d come upon an exposed tree root on my ascent. You’d think that an ape would be able to grab onto the tree and keep climbing, but nope. My ape would jitter wildly as I pushed up on my controller, begging her to just grab onto the damn tree.
And while we’re on the subject of grabbing, there’s a swing mechanic in the game that allows you to press A to grab onto foliage and creepers and swing from them, but this definitely doesn’t work as well as it should. I can’t tell you how many times I jumped through a blanket of leaves, held A, and watched in horror as my ape fell dozens of feet to the ground, breaking her bones and slowing her movement to a crawl. No thanks.
The lack of refinement in the game’s platforming controls thankfully isn’t reflected in the visuals and sound, which are both terrific. All of the environments look great at all times of day, and the sound design completely envelops you in nature. The most impressive aspect of the game’s presentation, though, is the animation. I’ve never seen a 10 million-year-old clan of primates before, but man, I bet they looked and moved just like they do in this game. Seriously, all of the animals move in a way that feels hyper-real and accurate, to the point where, when I saw my first elephant, I audibly gasped in astonishment (my wife can confirm this, as my gasp scared the crap out of her from across the room). You can tell the team at Panache put a lot of love into how the flora and fauna were portrayed, and for this, they deserve a lot of credit.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a tough game to recommend, mostly because the learning curve is so steep. I can see a lot of players walking away from this thing within the first hour, but I’m also sure that there are plenty of gamers out there who will become completely obsessed with it. I belong to the latter group, though if I’m being truthful, I probably would have quit early on had I not been playing the game for work. Again, this game is brave, an uncompromising and brutally difficult experience that’s both trippy and sobering, and won’t be for everyone. But I sort of admire it for that reason.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is out now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.