Life sucks in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. The first game to properly tackle human evolution, Ancestors will make you strongly consider how we got here at all. Starting its journey 10 million years ago with the hominids of Neogene period Africa, everything wants these poor monkey men dead. Predators, poisonous food, inclement weather; these monkeys were strangled to death by giant snakes so we could spend our lives complaining on Twitter.
Few games have concepts as ambitious as Ancestors. Tasking the player with surviving its open-world and advancing their lineage across a period of 8 million years, transforming human evolution into a video game is no small task. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the developer at the helm of the project is Patrice Désilets, creator of the Assassin’s Creed series and now the founder of Panache Digital Games. Ancestors is Panache’s first release and Désilets’ first game since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, with him now exploring human prehistory rather than regular ol’ history.
While Ancestors is rooted in our history, its only clear similarity to Assassin’s Creed is in player movement. Considering how many predators on the ground want to eat you, you’ll spend most of your time clambering up trees and swinging between branches. Momentum is everything, with you holding A to make your hominid sprint and releasing to make them jump. You’ll automatically cling to any tree you jump onto, and then you can hold A again to jump and swing across nearby vines and branches.
Confining all of this to one button makes movement feel satisfying, with the player offered much more control over their clambering than is typically present in modern action games (including AC). In order to quickly progress through the map, you’ll need to time and plan each jump carefully, ensuring your hominid will have a vine to latch onto after swinging. Getting it right means that you’ll gracefully fling your monkey from one tree to the next; getting it wrong means you’ll faceplant onto the ground below, breaking bones in the process.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review | Not your average survival game
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey simplifies the process of evolution down to neuronal energy, which works like XP and is used to unlock new abilities. You acquire neuronal energy by way of accomplishing tasks such as investigating your surroundings, crafting new tools, and discovering new landmarks, though you must have a baby hominid in tow in order to do so. The more babies, the more neuronal energy you acquire, as you imparting wisdom onto your clan’s younger members.
Whereas most survival games have you progressing to the point where you can build elaborate settlements and craft elaborate weaponry, Ancestors sticks closely to its concept by way of having you develop primitive knowledge of how to defend yourself and your clan. You’ll be able to unlock abilities that allow you to carry an object in your left hand as well as your right, or let you pick up and carry more food. Crafting sees you banging two objects together and seeing what works, with you using your common sense to figure out which resources to combine rather than being told what to do by an on-screen prompt.
This stripped-back approach is perfectly in-keeping with Ancestors‘ concept, and it’s commendable how closely Panache sticks to this formula throughout. Though some creative liberties have inevitably been taken for the sake of fun, it’s clear that plenty of time and effort has been put into replicating the struggles of survival during the Neogene Period. You’ll always feel like an underdog battling against the odds because the hominids were just that.
You’re not going to be able to rewrite prehistory and put a bunch of hominids in a luxurious castle at any point, but you can speed up the progress of your clan beyond what was achieved in reality. Whenever you evolve your clan, which you choose to do so after completing set criteria, your accomplishments will be transformed into years that will dictate how far into the future you’ll progress. Actions such as having babies, making new discoveries, and killing predators will speed up the evolution process, while hominid deaths will slow it down. Considering death is around every corner, you’ll need to be well-equipped to face the dangers of prehistoric Africa if you want to advance your bloodline.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review | Game over, man(kind)
When you die in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, there’s no coming back. In what will be a polarizing feature, it has a true fail state. There’s no rewinding to a previous save, no chance to resurrect a deceased hominid. When one of your clan has expired, they’re gone forever. This means that in your pursuit to continue your lineage, this goal can be completely derailed if your clan has bitten the dust. If all of your hominids die, then it’s game over.
Considering that you can invest some 40–50 hours into Ancestors in order to reach its conclusion, the looming threat of this fail state is anxiety-inducing. Babies are hugely important to your progression, as you need them in order to advance your lineage. You can choose to evolve your clan at any point after completing the listed criteria, but you’ll need babies in order to expand your clan and provide you with that all-important neuronal energy. Watching as a tiger mauls your adult hominid to death, then having to control the baby he was carrying as the tiger continues to attack, is heart-pounding.
The unpredictability of Ancestors‘ hostile world means that you never truly feel safe exploring it. Even in my settlement, the safest place for my hominids to be, my monkey man was woken up in the early hours of the morning by a prehistoric lion chewing on his brother. If you’re not prepared to face peril at any and all times, your clan will die out quickly. It’s what makes Ancestors so engrossing, but also what makes it so exhausting.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review | Feel the fear and do it anyway
You can craft tools with which to defend yourself, such as sharpened sticks or blunt rocks, and counter-attack predators in order to kill them. Each attack takes the form of a quick-time event, with you having to press the A button in time with an audio prompt. If you’re without a weapon, you can choose to dodge instead. If you mistime the button press, the predator’s attack will be successful and, in some cases, kill you outright. You can use neuron energy to improve your chances of pulling off a successful counter-attack, though there’s more than a little RNG to it. I’ve repeatedly attacked enemies and had my weapon break against their body, even after timing my counter just right.
Dying at the claws of a predator isn’t the only way to lose a hominid. Traversing through its map burns through your energy meter, which then depletes your stamina meter, which finally reduces your life expectancy. In order to maintain all three, you’ll need to eat, drink, and sleep a sufficient amount. You can investigate your surroundings using senses mode in order to find nearby food and resources, with you able to smell, hear, and focus on items and enemies in the near-distance.
Investigating and discovering new food and resources can also be used to increase your dopamine meter, which is crucial when you enter into a state of fear. Fear is triggered when your hominids venture into uncharted territory, and when they’re in this state they’ll experience visual and audio hallucinations. Increasing your dopamine level will allow you to conquer your fear, opening up more of the map for your clan to explore.
You can switch to any member of your clan by standing near them, with you able to explore as baby, adult, or elder. You can also request that a clan member follows you, or unlock the neuronal ability that beckons your entire clan to accompany you. Unfortunately, the AI is so poor that calling other hominids to go out on expeditions with you is often a death sentence. You can use neuronal energy to make them able to defend themselves better, but I’ve watched a monkey walk directly into a snake before dying.
The hominids also aren’t able to cure themselves of debuffs such as bleeding and poison without your aid. If a monkey has been attacked by a predator, they’d prefer to stand around and die before going out and picking up the resource needed to prevent the bleeding. If your clan has come under siege, it’s difficult to tell which member is injured, meaning that I’ve had hominids die simply due to me not knowing they were bleeding out. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially considering that such circumstances can lead to a game over.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review | Balancing act
There are an awful lot of systems to carefully balance, and Panache Digital Games makes a point of not holding the player’s hand through them. There’s a ‘First Timer’ mode that will explain what you need to do in text boxes, though they aren’t exactly thorough descriptions. I was multiple lineages deep and still discovering new things; it took me a considerable amount of time to discover that I could relocate my settlement, and I’m certain that I still haven’t crafted some possible items.
When you’re starting out, this mimics the confusion and incompetence of your fledging hominid clan, as you’re bound to lose more than a handful of monkeys as you struggle to get your head around it all. However, when you’ve already evolved millions of years and there are still systems you don’t understand, you can be left feeling aimless and unsure of how to progress. There were times when I felt thoroughly confused as to how I should continue, and while Ancestors makes a point of encouraging each player to experience the game in their own way, in these instances it certainly felt like I was playing it incorrectly.
If Ancestors gets a decent community behind it, I imagine players will revel in its more obtuse mechanics. Sharing information on how to best progress and evolve is certainly a potential draw, though playing the game without a helping hand can be a test of patience. This combined with the brutality of its world can be off-putting, but the sheer ambitiousness of its concept and watching as your hominid makes its advancements, changing both physically and mentally in order to adapt to your surroundings, elevates it beyond these annoyances.
The final verdict
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is like no survival game I’ve played before. Charting human evolution is an extraordinarily complex concept for a video game, yet Panache Digital Games has pulled it off by way of carving its own route through a crowded genre. There’s nothing flashy about the brutal landscape in which you attempt to evolve your lineage, and I assume some won’t be interested in a game with unlockable abilities that include being able to sniff a bit farther or hear a little clearer. But this is a wonderfully unique experience that will be deeply appealing to those interested in a hardcore challenge, that just so happens to be rooted in a time period that is completely unexplored territory.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was reviewed on PC with code provided by the publisher. A PS4 and Xbox One version is releasing in December.