Game Reviews

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review

It all started with a good back rub.

by William Schwartz

Video games have the potential to teach, excite, and make you see things in a different light or from a different perspective.  It’s one of the greatest things about the medium, but not too many of them ever really boil down to anything but mindless fun.  Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a lot like modern games in some aspects, and in others, it’s something completely different and unique.  While it comes from one of the minds that brought us the Assassin’s Creed series, it is not that.  Ancestors is a survival game.  Well, actually, it’s THE survival game, telling the story of a primate and their clan in their struggle to survive, adapt, and evolve.

You create your own story

There really isn’t a story here, actually.  The story is the one you create.  Your adventures can range from the small triumphs of learning to use both of your hands to the bigger moments like the joy of childbirth and the advancement of your lineage.  Ancestors is a complex survival simulation, that doesn’t hold your hand and makes you think at every turn.  It allows you to weigh the costs of each and every action you make, just as you would were you the primate you are controlling.  Yet, it’s not a turn based game or a simulator, it’s a third person open world game.

ancestors-predator

Ancestors is a little bit overwhelming at first.  There’s really not much by the way of tutorials, even if you elect for the guided first play through. You are given a world to explore at your pace.  There are some pretty brutal rules at the onset.  Don’t get killed by predators, basically.  You can also die of starvation or thirst.  You can walk into an area where you become scared, fearful for your life, overwhelmed and frenzied.  You can get bitten by venomous snakes which clouds your vision and makes you weaker and slower.  You can break your limbs if you mistime a jump and fall from heights which makes you move much slower making it harder to climb or run away from predators.  Like other survival games, it’s the basics at first though.  You’ll learn to find food and water, where you can rest at, and what you can interact with.  The core building blocks will keep you from going hungry or thirsty and allow you to get rest so you can explore the world and navigate its dangers.

Ancestors can be a bit overwhelming in the opening hours

The beauty of Ancestors is that instead of a tutorial that walks you through the video game rules of finding water and food, you simply walk to a stream, cup your hands and gather water.  Or walk to a tree, examine it, pick a berry off of it, and eat it.  It’s all pretty natural and organic in the way that you learn the rules.  You are a basic primate at the onset of the game, a far cry from the evolutionary result you’ll become.  Ancestors is a game of small a-ha moments.  We’ve all seen the depiction of cavemen when they invent fire.  To modern day humans, we don’t even think about it.  But can you imagine what it’s like to discover something like that for the first time?  Ancestors has a lot of these moments and they’re absolutely great. There’s really not much instruction, you are just kind of guessing what to do, or thinking to yourself what would logically work in a given situation.  More often than not, when you do stumble across an important gameplay mechanic you will then get a tutorial tip from the developers on why it’s important and how to do it.  But not before you find it in most instances.  You’ll just use minimal on screen prompts to figure everything out for the most part.

ancestores

For instance, as you get a little ways into a generational playthrough, you’ll unlock the ability to switch an item between your left and right hands.  While it doesn’t sound like a big deal, it’s what is basically the road to crafting and manipulating objects.  I literally found myself in a spot where I had a coconut in one hand and a rock in the other and a light bulb went off where I thought “I’ve got it, I’ll smash them together.” It seems dumb, and it might sound dumb, but it was a moment, a milestone, a new source of food.  I could climb the trees, above the predators on the ground (like the boars and tigers) and pluck coconuts for sustenance without much risk.  The tree wasn’t far from the cave either.  I could easily go back to our clan’s makeshift base without much danger, get the kids and bring them out to get more coconuts.  In the process I would be teaching future generations to survive as well.

I took to the trees to avoid predators and make it back to the base to meet my clan

ancestors-child

Because Ancestors isn’t just about a single character.  You’re controlling a clan and all that goes with that.  The primate you start out with will die.  Whether that’s from old age or from a Saber Tooth Tiger tracking you down.    Your job is to survive, procreate, teach your children skills that they will improve upon and pass down to their kids… and so on.  This is where the video game systems definitely come into play.  Once you start figuring this stuff out, Ancestors does get a bit more transparent, but no less fun as there are still plenty of surprises in store.  However, you’ll soon realize that your goal is to push forward, multiple generations, locking in the skills and abilities that you’ve learned out in the world.  There are few different systems at play here.  The first is a series of challenges that give you somewhat of a goal.  These require that you perform different actions.  This can be finding and using certain tools and items or combinations.  There are abilities unlocked through exploration. And there are expansionary goals which consist of things like finding new clan members to join you out in the world or intimidating predators before they attack you among many others.  These challenges along with using your senses out in the world to learn more about it by finding new items, locations, friends and foes, will lead you to become more capable.  Again, this isn’t a checklist of things to do, rather something that you see as a milestone AFTER you’ve done it.

You’ll see small immediate improvements, but your goal is pass traits and abilities onto your kids

It is baby steps however.  You’ll see little things at first, like small improvements to dexterity or your memory.  These will allow you to remember the locations of items you previously found or use items differently.  You’ll learn to groom your clan mates, bond with the opposite sex and make babies.  You’ll learn that you need to teach these babies how to do the things that are necessary to survive and you’ll ultimately continue to build and build through each generation.  However, there is a fail state in the game.  Your clan is finite.  As mentioned, time or predators can thin out your ranks so its important to make children and progress the game.  The more children you’ve created the more points or traits you can lock in for future generations.  You’ve got to pair males with female that aren’t related to one another.  You’ve got to give them a good back rub and couple up before you can invite them to your bed of leaves to do the duty (assuming they’re fertile) and you’ll have a child.  These children can make more children and they can mate with others and so on and so forth.  The more children you have the more upgrade points you can earn by taking them out into the world to learn.

neuronal-upgrades-ancestors

Over time, you’ll see the evolutionary process at play.  The things that were once milestones are commonplace.  Things you once thought were a challenge become easier as you become better equipped to survive in the harsh conditions.  That said, the progression can be incredibly slow in this game.  While the developers urge players to play their own way and that there is no right way to play Ancestors, this does mean that different people are going to get different things out of it.  I could see some people picking this game up out of curiosity or word of mouth and then putting it down an hour or two later.  There are many things to learn at the onset, and you kind of have to buy in or have that first a-ha moment for the game to really sink its teeth in.  Once it does though, it’s one that will make you think.  Whether that’s trying to solve specific problems for your clan or trying to do things you know that are necessary to survive that you haven’t quite figured out, you’ll search for these answers.  Once you have that moment, you’ll likely be hooked though.  Ancestors makes you think about what life was like for early primates and the evolutionary process.  It uses gameplay in unique ways that feels incredibly rewarding at spots and slow and tedious at others (kind of like real life).

Ancestors impressed in the way it makes you think about solutions to problems

Ancestors is not without its flaws.  Since the game is releasing on PC first, there is only one way to play this game at the moment and that’s going to be on the Epic Games Store.  That might be a deal-breaker for some, but even if it isn’t there are some other things that’ll need to be overlooked as well.  The controls of the game are one of the major things that do hold the game back.  Ancestors doesn’t really feel that great to play from a controls standpoint.  Swinging from tress and climbing around the world should be more fun than it actually is in the game.  Where you might have been able to eek some enjoyment out of the game in the more mundane moments, a lot of the controller input gameplay from moving around the world to “fighting” with predators doesn’t feel great.  Traversal and climbing, running and jumping, it all feels sluggish and your prone to just being caught on the geometry when navigating the world.  And, it’s a PC exclusive which tells you up front that it was designed to be played with a controller.  You’ll likely need it because there are some timing based puzzles that don’t feel that great on a keyboard.

While it’s also understandable why there have been a lot of considerations made to let players figure it out on their own, this can also be incredibly frustrating when the first time you fire up the game you fall from a tree and break your leg or get poisoned and aren’t able to see anything.  Since there’s really no descriptions to help you other than hey you need something to cure poison, this aspect can also be frustrating.  There’s an interesting problem here with this game and Panache Games decided that less is more when it comes to help and explanation and have made a pretty big bet that people will have a better experience when figuring it all out on their own.  I ended up loving my time with Ancestors and I plan to play a lot more of the game, but I did not feel this way when I first started playing.  It felt like the obscurity of the game’s rules were too much to overcome and the unstructured nature of the game made it feel like most of what I was doing was a waste.  So long as you can let go of the standard ways that you think about rules, missions, and stories, there’s some really incredible stuff here that crosses some boundaries when talking about games as a medium.  Many games evoke emotions and can give you a sense of accomplishment for your completed tasks.  Not many in recent memory have I played that did it like this one.  It’s a refreshing take on a genre that’s been done to death in recent years.

The Verdict

Ancestors is likely going to be a polarizing game, but it’s something so out of the ordinary than what you’ve come accustomed to in either the survival or third person open world genre, that it’s worth a look.

- This article was updated on:August 27th, 2019

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Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey

  • Available On: PC (Xbox & PlayStation December 2019)
  • Published By: Private Division
  • Developed By: Panache Digital
  • Genre: Survival
  • US Release Date: August 27th, 2019
  • Reviewed On: PC - Epic Games Store
  • Quote: "Ancestors is likely going to be a polarizing game, but it’s something so out of the ordinary than what you’ve come accustomed to in either the survival or third person open world genre, that it’s worth a look."
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