Remember the old Minecraft days? Back when you had to find recipes, uncover items, and survive on your own without the help of a tutorial? Sure, you had the internet to search for things, but there was a certain sense of accomplishment that came with discovering a new tool that you'd never get from using a guide. That feeling permeates throughout the entirety of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, albeit with a little more direction than its block-breaking predecessor.
Yes, Ancestors is an open-world survival game and a good one at that. You play as an ape at around 10 million BC. Your goal is to literally enact evolution - to set in stone the genetics and neurons required to help you and your clan survive in this harsh world. The task is about as daunting as it sounds. Even so, it breaks down in such a way that you're always making progress, even if it's slow and tedious at times.
In order to evolve, your apes have to find new ways to interact with the world, such as trying a new food or figuring out how to fend off a new creature and commit their newfound knowledge into genetics. This translates to building out neurons, essentially a type of skill tree. You can view unlocked neurons whenever you'd like, but cannot commit the skills until you've gathered neuronal energy. In order to do that, you must explore the world with a child or two strapped to your back. Otherwise, all of that experience goes nowhere.
This decision is quite practical, as the children need to see what you're doing if they're to adapt and evolve better than their parents. You'll find that most of Ancestors is practical in that regard - if it makes sense in real life, it probably works in the game, like using a rock to sharpen a stick, for example. However, the less exciting aspects of such practicality translate as well.
I mentioned that progress can be slow and tedious, though this isn't a knock against the game. Survival games are full of tediousness, but titles like Rust or Minecraft can be a little too menial due to their inventory systems that require constant organization. Ancestors gets points for subverting an inventory completely. Instead, it applies the monotony to gameplay and exploration.
Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey Review | A Feature-Filled World
To move their evolution forward, your apes have to explore every location, understand how items work together, and learn how to defend themselves. The activities list is exhaustive and repetitive, with you literally having to sharpen a stick with not one rock, but the three different types of rock. Using a granite rock to defend yourself is different than using an obsidian rock, and you gain equal rewards for both methods. Fighting with a sharpened stick vs. a really sharpened stick will provide different experience points as well. Hell, even standing up to walk for two seconds is a form of learning.
It sounds monotonous, but the game is better for it. There's no streamlining the stick sharpening process, for example. You have to sit and act it out every single time via a mini-game. However, what's great about Ancestors is that these tedious actions take place in-game as opposed to sitting in an inventory. There's no staring at menus for hours to craft and combine items like in Minecraft.
Actions in Ancestors all occur in real-time, meaning there's weight behind everything you choose to do. You're just as likely to be the victim of a warthog attack as you are to find a freezing downpour while crafting your next meal. Applying some medicine in the middle of the jungle? A tiger could be waiting around the next corner. It's exciting because you never know what can happen on your next venture out. A quick trip to grab medicine could turn into a hunt for a new creature or the discovery of a rogue ape to bring into your clan. You'll never experience that in a crafting menu.
Of course, this wouldn't be as effective if the gameplay wasn't as fluid as it is. Running through the African jungle is the definition of blissful. Your ape moves at a decent pace and can climb literally anything as if you were Spider-Man. There are towering trees to explore, branches to swing about, lakes to tread through, and all forms of environmental threats to figure out.
Ancestors provides full control over your ape’s senses to make sense of the world, and are broken up into three modes: intelligence, auditory, and smell. The intelligence sense puts the world in a bit of a haze and allows you to identify items of note from a distance. If an item remains undiscovered, it appears as a question mark that you can track and hunt down. If you've seen it the game will simply tell you what you're sensing so you don't have to waste your time viewing it in person. Smelling and hearing work in a similar way, only hearing helps you detect other animals and smelling with... well, scents.
Engagements are equally simplified, as the game will slow down and provide you with a counterattack prompt. When a creature is charging, simply hold down the jump button, point towards them to counter or away to dodge, and release it after an audio cue. It's quick, tense, and evokes a bit of a primal feeling - exactly as the game should.
Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey Review | Sensory Overload
These senses are also vital to exploring new areas. Upon entering an unexplored space, your ape will understandably be at odds with the landscape. This places you in a fear mode, where you must detect items around you to familiarize yourself with the space without running out of dopamine. The longer you take, the higher chance you have of falling into an uncontrollable frenzy and respawning back at home. But, if you sense enough entities to calm your ape down, you can then claim the area in the name of your clan and move through it freely.
You also have to manage your ape’s health. While you can switch between any clan member, the development team at Panache Digital Games made a smart decision by ensuring you only have to tend to the ape in which you're in control. This means you have to eat properly, make sure to drink water, and sleep at regular intervals. Failing to do so will make your ape run slower and possibly even die if left neglected. That said, if your clan is following you around, you do have to provide them with medicinal items should they take damage, or risk their death if neglected.
Every design choice factors around the theme of balance. Bringing your kids out exploring is important for growth, but they're more likely to die in the wild. Do you risk your life to gain more combat experience and become the dominant race, or do you play it safe and evolve into a more peaceful existence? Head out in the frozen rain? You'll probably suffer an elemental effect, but you'll also build some resistance to it. No matter your path, the genes you reinforce factor into the future of your entire lineage, which you get to experience first-hand, by the way.
Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey Review | The Fruits of your Labors
Whenever you feel a little stuck and are unsure of what to do next, you can initiate a generational leap. What this means is the game will jump 15 years, your kids turn into adult apes, the adults into elders, and the elders die. It's the literal circle of life, and the game resets your neuronal skill tree every time you activate it. But, you can reinforce a number of skills equivalent to the number of kids you had at the time of initiation. This is how you build your genetics for the long term, slowly reinforcing skills and traits two or three at a time. In doing so, you unlock more advanced versions even faster, and some kids might carry unique traits as well that will only activate during a generational leap.
Then, when you've accomplished a wide variety of tasks and feel ready to see those benefits in the long term, you can commit to an evolutionary leap. Doing so adds up all of your accomplishments, such as hunting a new animal or learning a new tool, and converts them into years advanced. The more you've done, the more hundreds of thousands of years you'll jump forward.
It's a fulfilling moment, seeing all of your accomplishments combine to evolve your race. That, and Ancestors even shows if you're ahead of the “true” evolutionary path, and by how many years. Each evolutionary leap brings with notable changes to the environment as well. New creatures will appear, lakes will dry up, tunnels will form, all ripe for you to explore. It's quite a surreal system, seeing how your choices affect the world hundreds of thousands of years later, and one that kept me in a constant state of progression.
Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey Review | Evolutionary Mastery
Ancestors presents you with a lot of information, and taking it in can be discouraging at first. The game intentionally leaves out in-depth tutorials to ensure each discovery is impactful. You're going to feel desperate and confused. There are times when you'll want to give up and start over like I did when my first clan was all but wiped out. But this is a game that rewards you for paying attention, and you'll benefit from taking the time to learn it.
It's not perfect, of course, and I have some small grievances. It's quite difficult to view the state of your clan from afar. Also, Ancestors isn't always clear about if you're thirsty, hungry, or tired. You'll only know this for sure after taking a nap. Still, these complaints are quite minor considering how much the game does right.
As of now, I only want to keep playing Ancestors, seeing what other skills I can unlock or how else the world will change. This is an experience unlike anything I’ve played in a long time, and I’m impressed by Panache Digital Games' ability to translate evolutionary concepts into a game so well. Ancestors is a game that they can build upon for years to come, and I hope it sees the support required for the team to do so.
TechRaptor reviewed Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey on PC via the Epic Games Store with a key provided by the publisher.
- Evolutionary Concepts Work Well
- Slick, Spider-Man Style Movement
- Real Time Crafting Mechanic
- Just Enough Tutorial
- Managing Your Clan Can Be Tough
- Can't Check Needs On The Fly