I never understood why people would say that a game “won them over”, or that someone hated a game when they started playing, but then grew to love it. I am more much more binary when it comes to my opinion of what I play. Either I like something or I don’t, and it has never taken more than twenty minutes to make up my mind. That is, until I reviewed Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.
After playing for about an hour, I had originally vowed to write an utterly scathing opinion piece on this trash. I hated it, and such a poorly-made game deserved to be thrown to the wolves. Still, in the back of my mind I knew I was missing something which made me pick it up one more time just for the sake of being objective. To my absolute surprise, I now find myself… a little obsessed, really.
I still don’t think Ancestors is a masterpiece, and I will get into some of the lamentable (but inexcusable) booby-traps that Panache Digital Games have stumbled into. However, despite the really cryptic nature of the gameplay, I eventually found an interesting and refreshing rendition of the survival genre once I was willing to dig deep just a little deeper.
A monkey’s tale
Be honest, we all bolted upright like a dog hearing its food bowl at the mention of Patrice Désilets’s name. He’s the guy who left Ubisoft from the teams working on the Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia franchises, and founded Panache Digital Games to make Ancestors.
Unlike Patrice’s previous undertakings though, Ancestors is not an action RPG. This is a purebred survival and crafting game set in prehistoric Africa where our ape-like forefathers first walked the jungle.
The game opens with an exhilarating cut scene of fearsome crocodiles, razor-beaked birds and sabre-toothed cats ravaging one another as just another day in prehistoric Africa. The message is clear; this is a hostile and dangerous world for the early humanoids. Yes, the word is ‘humanoid’ and not a monkey or a gorilla as people who don’t know their evolution keep saying on YouTube!
I took the role of an alpha female as part of a clan that has settled at the foot of the waterfall, and I was instantly impressed with the world that the developers have created within their game. The vast, lush jungle (complete with day/night and weather cycle) was enormous and filled with gigantic trees, lakes and rocky cliffs probably rendered to scale. It is all yours to explore, to look for food and for gathering resources.
Unfortunately, the camera handles like it is being held by an ADD-afflicted 5-year-old chugging Red Bull. If it’s not bobbing like a cork or veering off, the player is constantly staring up our early ancestors’ arses. Throughout my entire playthrough, I felt like I always had to fight a little with the game to aim the camera where I needed it to go (and like Ancestors was training me to be a primate proctologist).
I started following the first and only objective that the game will ever give you: Find and rescue the clan’s lost baby. These early humans possessed a heightened sense of smell, hearing and vision, which the player must use to identify most of their surroundings. After locating the baby, I slid down a tree with all the dexterity of a seasoned primate and proceeded towards the objective marker.
Mistakes were made
The little guy was hiding underneath a rock and I gave him a piggyback ride back to the nest just like the chimps I saw on BBC the other day. It was once I returned to the nest that I experienced exactly what about 99% of all day one players ran into: Absolutely no clue of what to do next. No further objective markers, no tutorials and no stats meters. Bugger-all.
I get that this experience of the unknown was meant to replicate the situation of our actual ancestors, but it is all just too much too soon, and the game punishes you severely for getting it wrong. Every now and then I like a game that doesn’t hold your hand, but it needs to happen more organically and logically through the gameplay. Unfortunately, this is definitely not the case here.
Okay, I thought, the ape must want food, right? There is a green orb at the bottom of the screen that was beginning to fill with red, which means the ape has to eat or drink I’m guessing. Either that, or she is preparing to fling poop at something. I spotted some berries hanging from a bush and followed the prompt to let the alpha female feast on the red fruit.
Big mistake. Turns out the berries give you an upset stomach, meaning that the early humanoid was REALLY about to fling poop everywhere. Here Ancestors first committed one of the Seven Deadly Sins of gaming: The player’s screen goes all wobbly and wonky to simulate the ape’s churning gut.
In fact, whenever you get poisoned, high off mushrooms, cold, frightened, or for no particular reason, Ancestors simply loves to make your screen go bonkers. I HATE it when games mess around with visual clarity since this is by now a rather outdated way of trying to simulating the discomfort of an in-game character. Thanks to progress of the other I.P’s, we know of better ways of conveying these situations to the player.
The only thing I could see around the nest was more of those dodgy berries, so I broadened my search to find some primordial antacid for my upset stomach. Unfortunately, my poor visibility caused me to miss a jump, which made my already suffering alpha female plummet off a high branch and break a bone when she hit the ground. So now my clan leader is both sick and limping. The human race is really off to a rocky start.
I finally figured out that water helps with the stomach problems at least, so I waded deeper into the river to settle in for some drinking… which is when a green mamba locked its venomous fangs on the ape’s arm from behind a tree. Now I can add poisoning to my list of woes, and the screen looked like vomit at this point making it impossible to see anything.
“No,” I said as I hit exit, “no, no, no. Screw this. Maybe the human race was meant to go extinct. You’ll thank me later Mother Earth.” I left the game, and didn’t play again for a day as I furiously plotted my review vendetta.
Let’s do the monkey
Before I munched those deadly dingleberries, I did some exploring around the settlement and noticed a variety of interactions and crafting options that I did not quite understand (because the stupid game failed to explain them). Perhaps the answer lay here. Perhaps there was something more beneath this horrid first impression and the developers’ imbecilic attempts to help you in their game.
It was at this point that I stumbled upon a streamer by the name of TagBackTV on YouTube. If my attempt at playing Ancestors was a patient in the head injury ward doing a cowbell solo, he played Ancestors like a symphonic orchestra conducted by Hans Zimmer. This YouTuber had evolved the hunched little clan of simians into a bipedal army holding hunting expeditions through the Savannah with stone tools and weapons.
Confident that it could be done I spent hours on Reddit, watched instructional videos, and finally summoned the courage to try again. This time, Ancestors felt like a completely different game. Now I was watching my clan grow and breed because I was teaching them to adapt and become smarter. Suddenly, it was 2:30 in the morning and JUST ONE MORE GENERATION EVOLUTION AND I PROMISE I WILL GO TO BED.
Like all good survival games, Ancestors has this internal rhythm and momentum for the player to fall into. Once you learn a set of basic gameplay mechanics (such as how to make medicine, how to make food more nutritious), you gain the confidence and knowhow to apply them in more complex tasks. In other words, once you understand the law of the jungle, it becomes a place of exploration and opportunity rather than one big death trap.
See, the aim of the game in Ancestors is to help your little clan of humanoids survive the harsh landscape of prehistoric Africa by building up their neuron cells. In other words, the player must give the early humans bigger brains, which in turn makes each successive generation (the babies) smarter and more capable in their environment.
In the opening sections, players will mostly learn the ABCs of just getting around the jungle, what to eat and avoid, and how to keep a keen eye out for predators. While the latter becomes annoying at times, the developers have programmed their AI really well since they can sneak up on you completely silently. I needed to change my underwear a few times after a crocodile lunged at me out of the water, or a sabre-toothed cat suddenly pounced out from the undergrowth.
After those neurons have been developed and you have passed through a few generations, you find that the primates can eat even the most poisonous foods with evolved guts, and kill even the most intimidating predators with a self-made spear. Players will learn all sorts of skills, such as how to use stone tools not just to make weapons, but also to grind plants into paste for making medicinal products.
After every major evolution, the clan’s distant descendants will find themselves in a new environment. From the jungle the player will eventually move to grass planes, the arid Savannah, and even the sea shore. Again, these environments are HUGE, and each one presents a unique set of environmental challenges to keep the somewhat basic gameplay fresh and engaging.
Staying in touch with your roots
The survival genre is an exciting area to explore for gamers these days. Games like Subnautica, the comeback of No Man’s Sky, and now Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey show that studios have a unique confidence here to turn some interesting concepts into games. As a community we should consider supporting these flawed but ambitious projects so that they can evolve into bigger and more refined products, and Ancestors is no exception.
Do try this game if you have the means or the time, but make sure you do a substantial amount of background research before you get your monkey on. While the developers were morons for not easing the players into this complex experience, many gamers might ultimately enjoy witnessing and guiding the very birth of our species.
- Big world to explore
- Vast and engaging skill tree
- Rewarding exploration
- Interesting concept
- Decisions matter
- Needs more player guidance
- Frustrating camera
- Screen distortion effects
- Mediocre graphics
- Can be repetitive at times
Play time: About 27 hours total. Most players should reach the final stage of evolution between 35 – 40 hours
Computer Specs: Windows 10 64-bit computer using Nvidia GTX 1070, i5 4690K CPU, 16GB RAM – Played using an Xbox One Controller