“Good luck, we won’t help you much”. Never has a truer opening statement been said than this surprisingly informal one you receive upon first starting Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. That’s because the new game from original Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Désilets is a survival simulator unlike any other, tasking players to advance an entire lineage of homosapiens over 10 million years in the attempt to beat science. You’d think that such lofty aspirations would see the olive branch extended just a little bit, but there’s no such luck. You’ll have to make do with swinging from them instead.
A third-person survival game where you control a clan of apes evolving throughout millennia, Ancestors is perhaps best described as an extremely challenging yet captivating take on the genre. You see, other takes tend to explicitly outline all the available actions required to stay alive to you right from the off, but in the pursuit of realism, here you’re thrown in at the deep end; you even have the ability to switch the HUD on and off. You’ll start off by controlling one primate in a group of multiple, gradually learning how to embark on expeditions, forage for food and fend off some of the more dangerous wildlife surrounding you.
Helping you to do this successfully is your suite of natural senses, where senses like smell and sound work as powerful tools. Both operate independently as their own detective mode of sorts, ultimately leading you to points of interest. The challenge, however, comes from how the way you engage with these tools is kept extremely abstract – at least initially. Numerous times in the opening hours did I feel like I was constantly fumbling around the same patch of tropical African plain (often for several in-game days) in search of what to do next. It’s in instances like this where you need to trust your own curiosity and check out every unsearched area.
The sheer level of openness Ancestors grants you can be a little daunting. Eventually, though, you learn how to best adapt for the betterment of your clan, engaging your instincts to find new items and sources littered throughout each location that are then used to educate and advance your current generation of apes. Doing this lets you upgrade your clan via a skill tree, where specific actions you perform unlock pathways in your ‘neural network’ that can then be passed on. Sharpening sticks, building a fire… most abilities are rather mundane at first, but it’s the only way to transform your troupe of beasts into full grown men.
Because evolution is the core drive of the game, Ancestors not only places emphasis on having players manage their clan’s hunger, thirst and sleep levels, but pro-creation, too. Building up a bond with your fellow apes starts off as simple as giving them the odd groom every now and then, though finding the right time to mate and where to do so also feeds into the survival strategy. Taking child primates out with you on expeditions, for example, accrues you XP required for upgrading abilities in your neural network further. Mating with your partner and giving birth to new apes is handled very tastefully.
As you can likely imagine, with a survival game as meticulous and ambitious as this, a lot of the bigger risks you take hold the biggest rewards. Just be prepared for the opposite to be true, also. It’s highly possible for you to get so far into a clan’s evolution, only for a wild animal you’re not prepared for or don’t know how to handle to come along and decimate half your troupe. This happened during my playthrough on more than one occasion, requiring me to begin a whole new ‘run’. Ancestors can sometimes feel cruel in this way, especially when you’re forced to witness such a heinous. Some of the deaths I witnessed were quite harrowing.
This is because, despite Panache Digital being a relatively small development team, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey exceeds itself in portraying the wildlife and world convincingly. You feel this most when climbing treetops, swinging through vines, and just generally interacting with other clan and outsider apes. You don’t have to use too much imagination to subliminally hear David Attenborough comment on your actions using his dulcet tones. Ancestors easily impresses on the visual side, especially given its scope and many varied landscapes.
One area where Ancestors thankfully doesn’t fight you on is the controls. You’re told early on that a gamepad comes recommended by the developer as the preferred way to play, and getting around the many beautiful landscapes indeed feels all the better because of it. This is the exact type of game where you don’t want to be constantly wrestling with button inputs, so rest easy knowing it feels good to leap from tree branch to cliff face and back again. Traversal here feels thoughtful and carries consequential weight; I’d expect nothing less from the creator of Assassin’s Creed.
Overall, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a different kind of survival game, one that’s ambition sees it continually ride a fine line between being enthralling and infuriating. To refine 10 million years of human history into roughly 50 or so hours of playtime (providing your clan survives) is a staggering feat, for sure, but some mechanics are so abstract that it’ll leave certain players at a loss. Providing you have the patience for it, however, Ancestors can be a rewarding trip throughout human evolution.