Set 10 million years before the dawn of humanity, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is the story of ape to proto-human evolution, with particular emphasis on the dangers that forced our fuzzy forebears into learning the skills that ensured the human success story.
Taking place in prehistoric Africa, Ancestors throws the player-controlled ape straight into the jungle with next to no instruction. In fact, a recurring theme of the gameplay is that, to make it in this cruel primeval world, you’ll have to learn from your mistakes, utilising trial and error to craft tools, find food, and support the rest of your ape clan. The ultimate goal is to learn, thrive, and ascend further up the evolutionary ladder, all while navigating the dangerous world around you.
The concept is certainly original and exciting, but this is recognisably a survival game at heart. Throughout each day you’ll need to maintain your water intake, make sure your ape eats enough, and manage the fear that arises once you leave the safety of your clan. To scope out the environment around you, you’ll be able to utilise and train your primate senses (sight, sound, smell, etc). Key objects to interact with will show up on the screen, as well as locations in the distance that offer new insight into the vast game world. Annoyingly, you’ll need to stand completely still for this mechanic to work, but this arguably mirrors a wild animal becoming still and using its keen senses to build a clearer picture of the environment around it.
When you’re not stationary, you’ll be able to try and make it as a fully-fledged king of the swingers. As you move through the jungle and approach either the trunk of a tree or a rock face, you’ll automatically begin to climb. Reach the top and you can leap from branch to branch in what are some of the game’s most exhilarating sequences. Sadly, these moments are often marred by clunky controls and a few too many falls when suitable branches to land on become scarce. However, during the initial hours of the game, when you’re unprepared for the threat of dangerous wildlife on the ground, finding safety in the canopy is the difference between survival and death.
Speaking of the dangers that lurk in the jungle, your ape is prone to fear-induced hysteria. As fear of the unknown builds, you’ll slowly lose control of your character, meaning that it’s vital to monitor this metric just as closely as you do thirst or hunger. But what exactly is there to be scared of? Well, the thick jungle foliage hides a plethora of predators that pose a threat to unarmed apes. Exploration of the world is interrupted by prowling wild cats, crocodiles waiting in ambush, and opportunistic eagles who make survival a constant battle. At the opening of the game these interactions are hard to avoid, and, with the game’s awkward dodging system, it’s irritatingly difficult to come out of these encounters unscathed.
Thankfully, as Ancestors progresses, your tribe begin to learn new skills, and the tools you’ll become accustomed to using (rocks and sharpened sticks) allow you to become more adept at taking on the dangers of the jungle. As the game revolves around the process of evolution, each brush with adversity will increase the accumulated knowledge of your clan. Once enough experience has been gathered, you’ll be able to update the gene pool (essentially a skill tree) with new abilities. In the menu you can build and expand neural pathways, bringing forward the best qualities from the previous generation and leaving disadvantages behind. Past a set point in the game you’ll also be able to move evolution forward anywhere from fifteen to a hundred years. These evolutionary leaps mirror the speed of real evolution, and, during the course of the game, you’ll be able to watch your ape clans slowly become more and more humanlike.
Whilst this is a neat system, there are big drawbacks. Through bad playing or plain bad luck it’s entirely possible for your clan to be completely wiped out, forcing you to restart proceedings with a new lineage. You may have to re-acquire the vast majority of skills you learned with your last clan, and this can be incredibly time-consuming and frustrating. Again, it does mirror what happens in the natural world, but there needs to be a better balance between realism and gamification here. After all, gamers often don’t have the time or the inkling to redo the exact same thing over and over again!
What this game does excel in, however, is incredible attention to visual detail, whether that be the impressively lifelike ape animations, or the thrill of seeing an aggressive sabre-toothed tiger for the first time. The prehistoric world around the animals also looks fantastic, with the ecosystem presented as an endless tangle of trees and Savannah that is begging to be explored. It’s just a shame that actually exploring it can be so frustrating.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey has a huge gene pool of potential, but endless repetition and clunky controls need to be removed from its DNA. For die-hard survival and exploration fans there is a worthwhile experience here, but for everyone else this is a game that’s so repetitive it’ll drive you bananas.