Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey isn't a game for the easily frustrated. The third-person survival game from Panache Digital Games puts players in control of mankind's early ape ancestors. The project has received a lot of attention thanks to the very talented team involved, which includes some Assassin's Creed franchise veterans. The goal of the game is to help your clan (and eventually your lineage) evolve from creatures who don't know what water or rocks are all the way up to advanced, more human-like creatures who are much better at staying alive. That task is about as daunting as it sounds and comes with a lot of restarting from scratch, heartbreak, and frustration.
The beginning of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is pretty compelling, if not a little clunky in terms of tutorials. The game intentionally offers very minimal tutorial text or hints and really wants players to figure this all out for themselves and restart their lineage multiple times as they get better and better at the gameplay loop. In the first moments players take control of a young ape who just watched its caregiver (maybe parent, we don't really know) get viciously torn apart by a predator. The jungle is a big scary place and Ancestors does a great job capturing that with sounds and atmosphere as fear and adrenaline take over. A big part of the game involves stopping to listen to what your senses are telling you... And then ultimately running away because you get scared.
After helping the baby orphan find its way to a hiding spot, players are transported to the real starting zone and take control of an adult ape who will head out and look for the child. This is a journey that is likely to be fraught with broken bones, poison, and encounters with other terrifying predators that players won't be ready to handle yet. Don't worry, if the ape fails its mission and dies along the way, there is the opportunity to take control of another adult back in the starting zone and head out again. This process can be repeated a few times before the clan dwindles down to nothing. Eventually, after successfully retrieving the little one and returning to the starting area, the game really starts to open up.
Ancestors is all about exploration and experimentation. The game wants players to use their senses, which are a bit like other radar systems in something like Tomb Raid, Batman, or Uncharted, to identify useful tools, food, and points of interest on the map. One incredibly frustrating thing about the system is that it can only be used when standing totally still. Players have the option to remember one item at a time, which will remain highlighted when they start moving again. Progress comes fast in the early game, once players realize what they are meant to do. Find food, water, and shelter and make discoveries along the way. The first hour or two of gameplay are very exciting as we discovered tools and new ways to help our clan survive and were rewarded with advanced neurons, which work a bit like experience points.
After making enough advancements, players can even access a skill tree of sorts (though not as traditional as skill trees in games like Borderlands) when they go to a resting spot and sleep. These advancements unlock new skills to improve foraging, fighting off predators, communicating with the clan, or making tools. The skill system is very well designed and our only real complaint about it is how long it takes to make advancements after the first few hours. The initial progress comes quickly, especially if you make advancement while younger apes are around and watching, but after learning how to use sticks and modify tools; things slow way down.
As players leave the starting area and head out to make new discoveries and uncover new zones, they are met with a brutal world full of opportunities for fear and pain. Prepare to fall out of a lot of trees. The ground is littered with predators and the game's combat system is a bit too clunky to ever really fight them off efficiently, especially before certain weapon advancements are unlocked. The dodge and roll system leaves a lot to be desired and feels a bit like a mashup of poor button design and unhelpful cinematic camera angles. Because of this, players will often want to stay high above the ground for safety.
Swinging around from tree to tree is pretty exhilarating and does help showcase the strength of the species, but these controls can be pretty clumsy, as well. It is very easy to miss a connection branch or tree trunk and crash to the ground, accidentally murdering an ape that you've spent hours controlling. Nature isn't kind and Ancestors definitely doesn't shy away from reminding us of that... Just wait until the clan children start dying because of your mistakes. That's a lot of guilt to carry around.
Surviving from the start through about 8 million years of evolution is the goal of the game and, honestly, it's going to take a lot of practice and many attempts for players to get there. There is the option to jump forward in time a few different ways, which is crucial to success. Players want to be unlocking evolution milestones that will allow them to advance by a generation. This sees the clan grow older and the younger apes taking on the adult roles. Although the gameplay loop of Ancestors never entirely had us hooked, there is something very rewarding about seeing how discoveries can be carried forward from generation to generation to advance the greater good.
That said, on the opposite side of the equation there are just some brutal setbacks in Ancestors. Players like us are going to accidentally kill their whole clan time and time again and get stuck restarting from scratch. That means going back to one of the starting zones you've unlocked (just the jungle until you progress to a certain point) and picking up from the start. Although players will move more quickly each time through, assuming they've learned some new tricks in each playthrough, those early hours can still feel painfully repetitive and slow.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a bold experiment that really leans into putting players in situations where they have to be creative and resourceful without any hand-holding. Gamers who kick a kick out of the survival genre (like these 10 great survival titles) and love the pressure of finding that next source of food or safe place to sleep will likely get a lot of enjoyment out of Ancestors once they adjust to the controls, but it will likely feel a bit too challenging and aimless for the average gamer.
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Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is out now for PC with PS4 and Xbox One coming in December 2019. Game Rant was provided a PC code for this review.