I’ve learnt two things playing Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. The first is that smashing two rocks together is more fun than you might think. The second is that I should be never, ever be allowed to dictate elderly policy.
I started playing this evolution-themed survival game with the purest of intentions; I was going to safeguard each generation of my monkey clan, helping them evolve so that, one day, their descendants could (literally) stand on their own two feet.
But a few hours in, it had turned into some sort of simian Logan’s Run. Learning that the game’s fear mechanic (which forces younger hominids to scope out new locations before proceeding) didn’t apply to clan elders, I decided to use them as scouts rather than risk the child-bearing middle generation. Sure, Granny may have been mauled to death by a crocodile but at least we learnt there was a huge lake two miles from our home. It’s what she would have wanted.
But I never felt guilty because, despite its epic title, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey fails to create an emotional bond with your hominids or to make you all that invested in their fate. You can change their names but the only way to glean this and other information is to get up close and personal which can be quite fiddly when you’ve accrued a ten-member clan. One way round this would have been to implement persistent scars but, as is, whenever you relinquish control of a hominid, they just fade into the pack, demonstrating little to no independent activity.
It’s fortunate for developer Panache Digital Games that, when it works properly, the rest of the game is so appealing. The studio is helmed by Patrice Désilets, best known for being creative lead on the first two Assassin’s Creed games, but Ancestors does more than ape that series’ third-person open world. Just roaming the African jungle is a hoot as you leap through the air, grabbing at vines and leaves to slow your descent, should you not find anything else to hold onto. You’re not forced to climb to a specific vantage point, but scrambling up a tree will let you use your senses to pick out creatures lurking on the jungle floor, and other points of interest. These, however, are things that you have to learn.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey doesn’t so much take off the training wheels as give you a box of bike parts, no instructions and tells you to assemble it before the murderspiders arrive. The world is so wonderfully, wildly hostile that stepping outside your starting zone is a trial. Upon unlocking the ability to command my fellow apes, I decided we were going to move camp. Five minutes later, two thirds of my clan were dead and the remaining survivors were stuck up a tree with a massive tiger prowling menacingly around the trunk. With no auto-map (which does wonders for the game’s sense of immersion), using your senses to spot and mark locations and enemies becomes second nature.
Risk is part and parcel of playing Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey and, when a gamble pays off, it can be exhilarating. It can also be quite cathartic, as was the case when I sneaked into a snake’s nest, the same green menace that had sunk its fangs into at least half my clan, and made off with its eggs. The game’s evolution system is basically a skill tree (barring the physical changes your apes undergo) and can give you an edge against your hungry foes. And surviving to create a new generation, even if you see your clan as just a number, is a satisfying experience. That’s not to say everything is actively hunting for you; animals will attack each other and it’s entirely possible to stumble onto them by accident, leaving you tiptoeing away before they wake up.
Yet nothing in the game is quite as exciting and as rewarding as discovering something new. Not discovering a new location – though Ancestors’ world is varied enough – but learning how to use items together in a way that benefits the clan. Some are functionally important; learning which item stops your hominids from bleeding to death is a pretty essential piece of knowledge. But even little revelations can give you a real rush, such as holding down a button just long enough to strip the twigs from a branch, giving you a slightly more menacing looking stick. Not everything can be altered or combined to create something else, but there are so many resources in the world that you’ll find something that works and, unlike many other survival games, crafting never feels like a chore.
However. The monkey wrench in the works is that, in its current state, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is quite buggy, and those bugs stand out more because of the hours you put into reach that point, and the lack of quick saves (lose your whole clan and it’s Game Over). For example, there’s a point when you’ll have learnt enough to be able to take on the jungle’s more aggressive animals. It’s not a scripted moment (there are few scripted events in Ancestors) but you’ll feel confident enough to take your monkey posse out into the world, appropriately armed. Ancestors’ combat system relies on you holding down a particular button and then rolling left or right as necessary but, even if it wasn’t purely down to skill, seeing my hominid skewer his aggressor was breathtaking.
My confidence bolstered by this unexpected victory, I spent an hour readying my simian brethren and, ordering them to follow me, we headed out into the jungle. Five minutes later, we had found our tiger. I’d love to say that a fierce battle ensued, and that despite the loss of one of our number, we were victorious. What actually happened was that the tiger stood roaring on the spot, while my brave warriors clipped through him and the game ignored my efforts to poke him with my weapon. It was far from the only enemy bug I’d encountered, but it was an infuriating anticlimax to the hunt.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey does something genuinely original with the survival genre; no matter how often I’ve missed a jump and splattered on the jungle floor or got blindsided by a panther I kept on playing. Every time I’ve been infuriated, I’ve come back for more. It may lack a concrete story, but you’ll find yourself writing little stories in your head as you roam – the time you dodged that giant eagle, or distracted a tiger just long enough for your fellow primate to reach a tree.
If Panache can squash most of the bugs, this could be a Game of the Year contender. As is, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is still well worth monkeying about with and I know I’ll be coming back for more.