Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review: Not The Ripest Banana

When I first heard about Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, I thought it was one of the coolest concepts I'd heard for a game. It would allow us the opportunity to witness the evolution of humanity first hand. Using our own instincts, we would guide a society of primitive hominids, as they took their first baby steps towards civilization. It was an insanely ambitious premise.

Unfortunately, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of that idea. However, it definitely makes you feel as lost, scared, and confused as early man.

The Digital Dawn Of Man

via Shacknews

Ancestors is a survival game, where you play as a prehistoric hominid. There isn't much of a story, as the adventure comes from just trying to make it out of this jungle alive. The goal is to advance the species 5 million years into the future, and in order to achieve this, these little guys need to learn a lot of the basic skills that a standard human probably should know at this point. This includes learning how to make and use tools, how to find food, how to avoid and detect predators, and most importantly, how to mate. Mating is a pretty big deal.

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Travelling around the jungle is fun as the movement feels great: climbing and jumping around is probably the best part of the game. Gaining knowledge is pretty much the main drive of Ancestors. To do this, there's a kind of monkey radar, where you can use your limited intelligence as well as your senses of smell and hearing to detect things around the area. You then scan your surroundings and go to the various markers around in order to discover new plants, items, locations, or even wildlife. You should probably get used to using this, as a lot of the game depends on having a decent level of perception of the world around you.

In this game, evolving is just a fancy way of describing the skill tree. As these monkeys sleep, the synapses in their brains fire off until they learn how to hold things in their other hand, or gain the ability to hear further away. They also learn just by doing things, kind of like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Communication skills are gaining by interacting with others, new tools can be found by fooling around with rocks, and so on. Early on, the skills you earn don’t seem all that great; but then again, you’re literally playing a ape-man. Learning how to make a sharp stick is a pretty big step forward.

It’s takes a while for the game to really get going, but there are some very interesting discoveries to make along the way. Although, maybe a bit too much of the game is focused on discovering things - such as how to actually play it.

They Finally Made A Monkey Out Of Me

Evolving into a human seems like a pretty daunting task, so one might assume the game would maybe give you a little bit of instruction on how do that. Well, not really. In fact, playing this game for the first 5 hours was one of the most absolutely confusing, bizarre, and frustrating gaming experiences I’ve had in quite a while.

When Ancestors starts, it gives you four options on how to proceed. You can play with a full HUD and tutorial, a full HUD and no tutorial, minimal HUD and a tutorial, or minimal HUD and no tutorial. Now, I don’t know a lot about being a primitive man - I can barely function as a regular old modern man - so I chose full HUD and tutorial. I wanted the game to hold my hand a bit before it threw me into the gaping maw of the prehistoric jungle.

Instead, the game starts with a cutscene showing various animals eating each other before a hominid is killed by a giant bird. You’re then suddenly just thrown into the game as a baby, and have to scurry around for a hiding spot until a bigger monkey person can rescue you. Once that's done, you’re essentially on your own. Aside from some messages that tell you some of the basic mechanics, the game doesn’t give you a goal, doesn’t tell you where to go, doesn’t tell if you’re doing what you’re supposed to doing, etc.

I kept smashing rocks together in hopes of making fire, eating mushrooms that ended up making me sick, and generally just blindly playing until I was adequately infuriated. Ancestors seems like it wants players to just stumble around, and hope they accidentally evolve into someone who knows what they’re doing.

Evolution Is A Dreadfully Slow Process

Thankfully, after my first group of hominids died from malnutrition, snake bites, and injuries related to falling, I was able to understand the game a little better. But once I actually got into the swing of things, I can't say I found the game to be all that fun. It was interesting seeing what new kind of animal was going to kill me next, or what kind of way I would learn to utilize my sharp stick making skills, but overall I just found the game to be kind of a chore to play.

It takes a long time to accomplish much. Progress is very slow, and it always seemed like I was one bad alligator or eagle attack away from losing a significant portion of my squad. It's not easy for all of the hominids to die, but if they do, you essentially need to relearn everything all over again. This game is unforgiving; I'm pretty sure that was intended, as the people at Panache Digital wanted you to experience things the way prehistoric man would have. I appreciate the attempt at authenticity, but the difficulty just made me not want to evolve at all.

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Boy Nature Sure Has A Lot Of Icons

The game looks good. Even though there were some times when the graphics seemed a little dated, overall I liked Ancestors' aesthetic. There are some beautiful locations, and at times the game practically looks like some kind of nature documentary about animals from millions of years ago. The hominids are incredibly expressive and show a lot of character, which does make you root for them being able to survive.

That being said, in some areas the plant life is so thick and lush that it can be hard to find the various snakes or other beasts that are hunting you down. Many times I found myself being prompted to intimidate nearby predators, despite not being able to find what was trying to kill me.

The game wants you use your intelligence and senses a lot, which often turns this lovely jungle world into a mess of question marks and various icons scattered around. It kind of ruins the immersion of being a hominid when you’re basically just looking at various triangles and squares. The lead developer at Panache Digital, Patrice Desilets, was the creator of Assassin's Creed; that influence is all over Ancestors, as it can often look like something out of one of Ubisoft's many collect-a-thons.

The game does truly shine with its sound design. The jungle feels alive with all the various animal and nature sounds and you can identify incoming threats sometimes from the sound effects alone. The music is also great at enhancing the mood, sounding calm and lovely when you're at your settlement or tense and anxious when you're about to be chomped.

Stuck In The Past

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is incredibly ambitious, and interesting, and it tries to do something that few games have ever attempted. I truly appreciate it for simply existing, and I sincerely hope Panache Digital continue making unique gaming experiences. But trying to chart the evolution of man in a video game is a pretty lofty goal; while Ancestors does an admirable job, I just didn’t really enjoy the adventure. It’s grindy, confusing, and it takes a long time to really get going.

There are plenty of guides out there now which make the game easier to comprehend; if you were looking to give this game a try I’d recommend using one because you’re probably going to need it. Ancestors could be cool as some kind of learning tool for kids to see how early man lived, but it didn't quite evolve into an enjoyable game.

3 out of 5

A PC copy of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is currently available on PC, and will later release for PS4, and Xbox One.

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