Within the first 10 minutes of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, I’d killed off my favorite member of my clan. Within the first six hours, my family of hominids was in shambles with only an elder and two children remaining. It was a humbling survival experience that I basically failed the first time around, and I loved nearly every minute of it.
Created by Panache Digital Games and Private Division, the whole point of Ancestors is to evolve ancient hominids over the course of millions of years to see if you can progress quicker than science indicates these species did. Pretend that you’re trying to show these hominids how to live and survive, one of the start screen tips says, advice which sounds like it’d be easy enough to execute since we’re mostly only working with sticks and rocks and leaves here. Ancestors doesn’t really tell you how to do that though – in fact, it doesn’t tell you much of anything. You’ll get the basic pointers and a “Help” menu if you need it (you will), but another one of the tips explicitly says to figure things out for yourself because answers won’t be provided. The sum of these parts is a truly unique survival formula that’s rewarding without feeling too unfair.
Everything you hope to accomplish in Ancestors must be learned through practice and the use of the game’s neuronal web, where you spend brain power to unlock different abilities. This neuronal energy is gained by having kids either riding piggyback or following you while you perform any notable actions like walking on two legs for a few seconds or smacking rocks together. To give an idea of how mundane yet imperative working your way through this web is, everything from holding two objects at once to directing the members of your clan and defending territory must be learned through this web.
Once you get your bearings and exit your settlement in search of bigger and better things, you’ll find the world outside is an unforgiving one. Investigating the scene of a scripted opening death high atop the trees in a jungle canopy led to an eagle attack and a swift introduction to the game’s dodging and counterattacking system. Without a weapon in-hand, the only option was to dodge to the side, and after panicking and jumping from the tree while failing to successfully grab a limb on the way down, the first hominid met its untimely end at the jungle’s floor. The game then transports you into the body of another clan member back home and the journey continues.
The eagle encounter is an isolated one in the sense that you must go out of your way to fight it, but everything else in this ancient environment is more than happy to teach you the ways of the world in its own way. Everything learned typically has some trial and error process attached to it. You’ll find out what limited weapons work best against predators and other wildlife and must learn on the fly how to treat injuries like broken bones and lacerations among other ailments such as poison and weather effects. All these actions are moderated by your sleep, hunger, and thirst levels, which must be managed each day. So long as you pay attention to your meters and the resources around you, these requirements are easily manageable.
These hominids lead exciting lives, and two types of my most memorable experiences involved other forms of wildlife. Once you carve out your own path through the jungle and other biomes by identifying landmarks, since there’s no map to help you, you can find a new home for your clan. Arming them with sharp sticks if they’ve learned how to use them, placing the kids on adults’ backs, and gathering everyone to move out is as important as the actual journey to a new settlement.
Fighting predators like pythons and big cats is one of the most exhilarating experiences, especially when the tables turn and you’re hunting them. Just like your hominid clan does, these animals live in and patrol certain areas. If you don’t clear out a potential settlement area first or quickly, you’ll wake up every day to something attacking a member of your clan. Tougher animals require several hits to take down, but seeing the same animal return with a sharp stick jutting out its back and knowing that’s the same enemy that’s been harassing you is a nice attention to detail. As the hominids’ skills grow, so does the player’s confidence, and you’ll soon find yourself clearing out warthogs and alligators and hyenas with a squad of armed companions.
It’s during these wildlife encounters where the bulk of the game’s frustrating elements are found, sometimes fairly and sometimes not. After falling asleep on the jungle floor by myself and waking up to an automatic death as a big-toothed cat caught me by surprise, I realized that one was on me. Another time, I was in the slow-motion counterattack sequence against a predator when an unrelated cutscene showed two animals fighting, something that’ll happen when wildlife around you gets too close to one another. When the cutscene ended, another cutscene began to show my hominid dying because the game decided I hadn’t successfully counterattacked despite not being in control. That death felt particularly unfair. While the build reviewers played on was unfinished and things like this are bound to happen, it’s also worth noting that one update rendered my save file completely unusable. Ancestors can ask a lot of players both in terms of time and attention, so it feels particularly nasty when something’s taken away unjustly.
Towering above all these daily actions is the game’s generational and evolutionary systems. Lock in traits for future generations to skip ahead 15 years to the next group of adults and elders and complete big accomplishments to fast-forward millions of years in a race against science. The effects of these time jumps aren’t wholly transparent at first, but they’re not too difficult to grasp. These Evolutionary Feats players must accomplish show how much you’ve done and how much there is left to do, and trust when we say there’s a lot to do.
Despite its occasional frustrations, Ancestors is an invigorating and engaging survival game that’ll hopefully be followed by more of the same. Each playthrough has the potential to be a bit different as you focus on different skills and spend more time in one biome compared to another, and thanks to the excitingly unsettling freedom it offers and its rewarding highs and lows, Ancestors is well worth the time investment.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey releases on August 27th for PC via the Epic Games Store with a PlayStation 4 and Xbox One release planned for December. A review copy was provided by the game’s creators and was played on a PC with an Xbox One controller. You can find more info about the game’s availability through its site.