We humans are amazing creatures, we’re the only animal on the planet (besides the beaver, of course) with the ability to drastically alter our environment. I, along with most of the species, often take for granted the evolutionary leaps our ancestors made to get us to this point. Mobile thumbs are an advantage used for more than phones and texting; they’ve enabled us to have the ability to fold a simple paper into the shape of a bird, fox, or any other animal imaginable. With just twenty-six letters alone I have the ability to convey an entire experience that can be shared with millions, if not billions, of people.
All of this is mind-numbing to even think about, and Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey seeks to capture a bit of this wonder in the early development of our species. And much like its inspiration, the game really seems like a work in progress.
From the start Ancestors is harsh in its introduction, declaring it won’t be telling you much (if anything) on how to survive the harsh wilderness it places you into. Set in the distant past of ten million years or so (give or take a few million here or there) you’ve got a frontrow seat to the dawn of civilization, a dangerous place when humans’ most distant ancestors were only just beginning to develop the basic skills necessary to conquer their environment.
The lush jungle world the apes live in is a harsh one which is beautifully demonstrated by the opening sequence of a fish attempting to be eaten. In this world every creature participates in the timeless competition for survival. The small clan of ape-like mammals who will one day – if they manage to survive their harsh environments – have descendants who can create their own realities at a flick of a switch is far down the line. Today, however, they’ll have to figure out how to craft basic tools to defend themselves and not just survive, but thrive.
Ancestors is designed to span multiple generations, but we’ll get to that later on in the review. For the moment, just know from the start you’re in charge of a lineage of primates who need to learn the skills necessary to pass them down to the next generation. The game looks and feels sumptuous, the gameplay entirely shown from a over-the-shoulder viewpoint that puts you right in the thick of foraging, battle and more.
Presentation wise, from the start its mind-blowing since discoveries come through trial and error. Finding new sources of food expand sources of nutrition available and increase chances of survival. Figuring out the few crafting recipes for weapons and coming across medicines to aid in survival offers a real sense of accomplishment. It’s elements like these that make survival games so attractive to me, becoming master of your environment through the accumulation of tools and skills built over time. This development helps turn the evolutionary tide: the saber-toothed tiger my clan had been fleeing from in a panic is now the prey whose descendants will fear mine for future generations.
And for the first few hours, it’s just like that. All apes can be controlled (yes, even the babies) and unlocking new recipes increases neuronal energy aka “experience”. This energy can be spent on a skill tree to improve dexterity, fighting capabilities, the ability to walk on two legs, etc. Giving birth to babies is highly encouraged since offspring can have mutations that can only be unlocked once they’ve reached adulthood. Mutations vary, but these can result in ones like unlocking the ability for an expanded metabolism like the ability to digest meat. They’re unlocked by jumping to the next generation and repeating the process all over again. Sound frustrating? Trust me, it is.
The experiences in Ancestors, while awe-inspiring at first, quickly lose their luster when major flaws start to show through. I’d be kidding myself if I demanded to have a brand new experience awaiting me around every corner. Some repetitiveness is bound to happen in any game, but here you’re beaten over the head with it. Making a sharpened stick for the first time and stabbing it into a predator you’ve been fleeing from the past three hours is gratifying. But every predator encounter results in another slow-motion button prompt. Combine this with the fact that no matter what predator you’re attacking the result is nearly always the same, the only difference being the amount of sharpened sticks used to kill them. This can quickly become repetitive.
Going back to how generations play a role in Ancestors can be frustrating and at one point I felt downright betrayed. The basic idea is getting to the next stage of human evolution, skipping ahead through thousands, if not millions, of years. We’re evolving the “hominin” species until we reach Australopithecus afarensis. It’s where humanity as we began to recognize it began to show through, though most people probably remember “Lucy”, our shared skeletal ancestor. Getting to this point is the ultimate goal, but the road there is anything but fun.
The majority of Ancestors crafting and building recipes are discovered in the first generation. (hint: there’s only two things you can build, a wall of sticks and a bed of leaves. You’re welcome.) When skipping to the next generation skills have to be locked in with Reinforcement points, meaning descendants retain them moving forward. The downside to this other aspects of the skill tree you might’ve spent the last three hours unlocking are forgotten and have to be “discovered” again. In hindsight the system makes sense, but no explanation given on how it works resulted in several wasted hours.
Exploration, on the other hand, is top notch since when an ape ventures outside their comfort zone they have to conquer their fear. I loved this since it truly showcases fighting against basic animal instinct towards self-awareness, imagining the threats that lay in unknown territory. The entire world becomes a dark gray with the flash of fangs and eyes in the darkness. True terror is hard to convey and here everytime the light went away I felt my chest tightening in anxiety.
And getting around the world is slow, but rewarding for people who love exploration. There’s no quick-travel system to take advantage of or easy paths to breeze from one side of the map to the other. I LOVED traveling through this ancient world and considering it changed with every leap forward in time, no two environments ever feel quite the same.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey does so much right, so often, that I almost feel bad for even suggesting it kind of slags somewhere in the middle. My initial excitement of controlling the destiny of mankind through evolutionary branching soon gave way to a routine of unlocking and rediscovering skills again and again, which quickly becomes very repetitive. Navigating this prehistoric landscape would have benefited from having even a basic explanatory system in place, or perhaps a more streamlined way to help manage the endless grinding necessary for success. I’m still recommending this, especially to biology fans, as perhaps we’ll see the game itself “evolve” over time. Given the subject matter, how fitting would that be?