Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an odd game. It’s difficult to define exactly what kind of experience it is. At times, I was exhilarated – while swinging through trees, fighting off terrifying creatures, or exploring the gorgeous treetop canopy. At other times, I struggled with the tedium of repetition or frustration at clunky AI. Fascination, curiosity and the thrill of discovery coloured much of the rest of my time. To be unkind, Ancestors is an inconsistent experience. To be more generous, it is a varied and exciting one.
Moreover, pinning a genre label on Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is challenging. It’s a survival game, but death isn’t always the end. It’s an RPG, but with no characters or story to speak of. It has elements of base-building and resource management, but those elements are sidelined hard.
There were times I loved Ancestors, and times that I wanted to put the controller down forever. Will I return to it? Probably. Do I think it’s a good game? That’s a more complex question.
What is Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey?
At its heart, Ancestors is a group survival game with RPG elements. As the player, you are tasked with caring for, teaching, and advancing a group of hominids, ancient ancestors of humans. You play as one clan member at a time, switching at will. You must take responsibility for keeping them fed and watered, as well as safe and un-injured. Crucially, you’re also responsible for growing neurons (learning skills), passing those skills on to the next generation, and evolving the species as a whole. The gameplay cycle goes something like this;
- Learn skills, grow your clan, and explore your surroundings. Experiment with new tools, new foods, and new methods.
- Advance through the generations – when you want to pass your skills to the next generation of hominids, skip 15 years of in-game time. Kids become adults, adults become elders, and elders die off. You choose how many skills from the last generation you want to “reinforce” – to keep.
- Make evolutionary leaps. In real life, evolution works by random mutations leading to greater adaptation. In-game, mutations are random changes to your genes that are always beneficial – but they die off with the hominid who has them unless you choose to evolve. These evolutionary leaps skip time ahead hundreds of thousands of years, after which you resume playing with your clan – and all of them in permanent possession of the mutations from the last generation.
Repeat ad nauseam.
“Good luck, we won’t help you much”
What a bold thing to say to a player starting your game, isn’t it? “Good luck, we won’t help you much” are the last words we hear from Panache Digital Games before being dropped into Miocene Africa as a terrified, orphaned baby. A little brutal, perhaps, but also ballsy as hell. After this dramatic beginning, Ancestors continues in much the same vein; you’re expected to figure things out for yourself.
The game has a limited number of objectives to complete that act, in their way, as a sort of tutorial. In a way. Mainly what they do is ask you to perform some kind of feat – but they do not tell you how. You need to experiment and intuit in order to figure it out. The feeling when you work it out: when you bash the right kind of rock off the other right kind of rock, when you figure out you can open a coconut this way; when you realise there’s an easier way than what you’ve been doing for hours – it’s vindicating, it really is. You feel like the smartest monkey on the block. You feel like Rex after his first helping of Brain Grain.
On the flip side of that, there’s the error part of trial and error. That’s always going to be frustrating, and it’s understandable that’s going to turn off many players. All that said, I’ve never played a game that rewarded experimentation and intuition more than Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.
Monkey See, Monkey Do: Clan Dynamics in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
All of this experimentation and exploration is in aid of one thing – helping your clan and lineage to grow. “Neuronal energy” – Ancestors’ version of experience points – are only gained when performing tasks that require problem-solving (mental or physical) – and only when done in the presence of children. It doesn’t matter if the hominid you’re playing as figures out how to craft a pointy stick to defend herself if the next generation don’t observe and learn from it.
To that end, you’ll find yourself venturing out into the jungles, savannahs and deserts of East Africa with one or two babies in tow in order to progress. The stakes are suddenly so much higher when you’re risking not just one of your adult hominids, but two of the next generation as well. But how else are they going to learn? Darn kids, always looking at their shiny stones and disrespecting their elders.
The Homecoming Saga
This combination of high-stakes, high-rewards and unpredictable wilderness makes for some wonderful emergent storytelling. At one point, I was exploring the jungle with two other adult clan members. Each of us had two children with us. The neuronal gain was great – we learned lots of skills. That is, of course, until disaster struck. After a savage attack by an animal in the jungle, the two other adults were killed. I was left stranded, away from home, with 6 babies – the entire next generation. It took me and the two adults 10 minutes to get to where I was. On the way back, however, it took nearly an hour. I shepherded 6 helpless babies through the undergrowth, fighting off hungry snakes and big cats, as well as belligerent warthogs. The tension had never been higher. These moments are the beauty in Ancestors.
On the flip side of that, none of it would have happened if the other adult hominids’ AI wasn’t so bad. Adults who aren’t you are functionally useless. If their hands are full, they won’t eat or drink until you take the items out of their hands, starving to death or dying of thirst. More than once, my clan nearly came to complete ruin because half the adults died out because they were too stupid to put down the rock and pick up some berries.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey – Bold Experiment, Dodgy Execution
Near the beginning of this review, I said that whether Ancestors was a good game or not is a complex question. Honestly, dear reader, I don’t have a straight answer for you. I think it’s an important game – I think it does some very unique things that are going to lead to very interesting results in the future. Similarly, I think that there are moments in the game that are stellar – it’s great for emergent storytelling and “aha!” moments. It’s also quite beautiful, and the world design uses verticality in really interesting and compelling ways.
Where it falls down is in repetitive gameplay, tedious quicktime events (for crafting and combat) and frustrating NPC AI. Unless you’re a die-hard completionist, Ancestors has very little in the way of replay value, as the second time around you already know all of the tricks and locations.
I would highly recommend anyone who feels intrigued in the least by this review to give Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey a try. Panache has done some genuinely innovative things with this, and despite inconsistencies in the gameplay, it’s a solid experience. If you do try it out – avoid Googling anything. It’s far more rewarding to experiment and discover Ancestor’s secrets by yourself.
Plus climbing and swinging through trees as an ancient monkey is pretty sick. Sometimes, it’s the little things.