Review – Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey

If the evolution of the species that would one day become Homo Sapiens had been left to me, it would have been extinct within a single generation. At least that’s what Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, an action adventure game with survival elements from Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Désilets, leads me to believe. It starts you out with our earliest Hominid ancestors and tasks you with leading them through the next 8 or so million years. You’re in charge of protecting them, teaching them, and guiding their evolutionary path in order to survive a hostile primeval Earth. If you fail, humanity never comes to exist. So no pressure.

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Some games let you pet cats or dogs. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey spits on those games.

The game starts with an ape and its children moving through the trees surrounding their clan’s current home. A giant bird then attacks the ape and knocks the baby off its back, causing him to fall to the forest floor far below. You then take control of the baby ape, where you are taught the basics of movement and observing your surroundings. Your goal is to simply find a hiding place to wait for rescue, and once it’s found, control switches to the adult ape and the game opens up.

Your first goal should be to find the fallen child, but it’s by no means required. The game takes a complete hands-off approach, you play and evolve your clan as you wish. There’s no crafted narrative to follow, quests to complete, or anything you would be expecting with “from the creator of Assassin’s Creed” plastered over every bit of promotional material. The gameplay itself is certainly similar enough to the model Assassin’s Creed may have set, but the implementation couldn’t be more different.

Exploration is the driving force of the game, and your main tools are your senses and your intelligence. There are three in total: Hearing, Smelling, and Intelligence, and each basically functions as individual Eagle Visions. Intelligence uses your eyes and knowledge to identify points of interest such as hiding places and crafting materials. Smelling is useful for finding food and water. Hearing is your most critical sense, as it allows you to locate hostiles and keep track of them. Using each one increases the corresponding neural branch which is what this game calls your skill tree.

Developing the skill tree is critical, perhaps even more so than in other games. Life was a constant struggle for survival against innumerable odds for early Hominids, and you  need every single advantage you can get. However, this being some of our earliest ancestors, even those most basic things were still foreign. This was before the idea of banging rocks together for sparks, sharpening sticks for defense, or even that eggshells are sharp and shouldn’t be eaten. You’re not just developing for yourself either, this is about creating a stockpile of knowledge and skills for the next generation, and what you do in one life will make the next either easier or harder.

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Things don’t look good.

This all comes together to form a strangely satisfying gameplay loop. You explore using your senses, which in turn develop your neural branches, through which you unlock new physical and mental functions, such as a rudimentary crafting system or being able to hold something in both hands. This in turn expands and deepens exploration, thus completing the loop. You always feel like you’re working towards something, either for yourself, the clan, or your lineage as a whole.

Speaking of lineage, you will eventually reach the point where you’ll feel comfortable enough to move to the next stage of evolution. This is the closest the game has to a campaign, with each stage requiring a specific number of achievements. With the large variety of achievements available that span the game’s various activities, and no requirements for what specifically to pursue, this ends up feeling as free as the rest of the game. If you wish to focus on exploration achievements, that’s cool. However, if you’d rather focus on clan growth both through births and recruiting from other clans, that’s a perfectly acceptable way as well. You don’t just choose what to develop, you choose how you want to evolve in general.

What about the ones that don’t make it though? Those who, like me, constantly make mistakes about which foods are safe and which are not? Those who fail to watch out for nearby hostiles, or merely mistime jumps consistently? The answer is simple: you die, usually very brutally. Control then transfers to the next ape in your clan and the game’s roguelike nature becomes clear. Each ape has their own individual development as leader of the clan, and losing that leader means losing all of that accumulated progress. Apes will slowly develop on their own, but nowhere near as quickly, and it will be up to you to catch back up. If the worst happens and you should end up losing your entire population, that’s just game over for you.

It’s the surprising roguelike nature that elevates this game for me and highlights the brilliance in its systems. How fitting is it that a game about evolution and building up across multiple generations requires that you as the player learn what works and what doesn’t across multiple playthroughs? Each time you learn more about how the game works, what neural pathways are best for your preferred playstyle, and just what not to do in general. The variety in the gameplay means that no two lineages will feel the same, especially as you adapt to the game.

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My first few times I did not make it far at all I admit.

I wasn’t expecting much of anything from Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. Marketing had been underwhelming, the gameplay looked drab and dated, and the graphics were nothing to write home about. I found myself hooked while playing though, as uncovering the myriad of intertwined gameplay mechanics, slowly developing my own lineages my way, and willing to try again after multiple extinctions was far more entertaining then I thought possible. It’s not a revolutionary title, merely a remix of a bunch of different mechanics from other games, but it’s different. With so many games coming out that look and feel the same, different has never been more important.

Graphics: 7.0

It’s not the prettiest game ever made, but it has its moments.

Gameplay: 8.0

The gameplay is pretty simple. The exploration mechanics are what you’ve seen before, survival meters are nothing new, and RPG mechanics humdrum.

Sound: 7.5

Sound forms a fundamental part of the gameplay. Not hearing the animal sneaking up on you could mean a horrible death, so its fortunate sound design was up to the task.

Fun Factor: 7.5

If there was ever a game more than the sum of it’s parts, it’s Ancestors. On paper it’s nothing that hasn’t been done better before, but the gameplay loop keeps you playing.

Final Verdict: 7.5

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is available now on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was provided by the publisher.