There’s heavy rain in the jungles of Africa and I stand there with two infants grasping onto my body, cold and hungry. With a granite grinder in one hand, I pull a red leaf from a Khat tree nearby. I never considered it before but I decide to switch the grinder to my primary hand and proceed to grind the leaf. Grinding away I hear the audio trigger and as I let go of the button I am greeted with a brand new discovery that I made, grinded Khat paste. Appying the paste to my primate ancestor results in a buff that maximizes my resistance to the cold for a lengthy amount of time and it is these moments of discovery forged in curiosity that make Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey one of the most rewarding and engaging games I’ve played in recent memory.
Crafted by legendary game designer Patrice Désilets, along with his newly formed indie studio Panache Digital Games, the team set out on an ambitious first outing choosing to set players in Africa 10 million years ago with nothing but the world and their senses at their disposal.
You control a clan of one of the earliest hominid ancestors of the Miocene epoch. After witnessing the death of an elder great ape, you take control of an infant. Overwhelmed, terrified and alone in a world ready to consume you, you must seek shelter before you become the next to perish. This is your introduction into the world of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.
Before diving into the odyssey of Ancestors you are greeted with a few messages from Panache Digital Games. One of those messages warning the player that the team would not hold their hand through the experience and I am happy to report that this was a promise that was well kept. The thing about this message is that it is the absolute right call for a game of this magnitude. The whole premise is for the player to discover and unlock the secrets of nature the way our hominid ancestors did. What would be the point of experiencing a game like this if the developer had to spell out every mechanic for you? Not only was this incredibly refreshing but extremely rewarding. For once I felt the avatar on my screen along with me, the player, were experiencing a journey in tandem. My hominid ancestor’s eureka moments were equally shared with me holding the controller in hand. With no narrative present in Ancestors, this was truly an experience where the storytelling was literally created through my gameplay. There is a lot to unpack here so let’s start with the core mechanics of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.
Movement in Ancestors is comprised of multiple iterations throughout your experience. With your first hominid ancestor, movement is primarily on all fours with a limited field of view. Standing up on two legs is only designated for when you need to better explore the surrounding area. Climbing up the vast trees of the jungle is easy enough and it is the ideal safe space for these great apes. It is amazing how Panache Digital Games successfully manages to capture both the emotions of the player and the hominid simultaneously through moments of pressure and fear. I can’t recall the countless times I was being pursued by a predator, only to be filled with relief the moment I’m able to spot a tree right next to me.
Not only do I feel the sense of relief but my hominid ancestor experiences the same emotion as well due to the dopamine gauge located on the corner of my screen. Stand on the ground for too long and be approached by a potential predator and that dopamine gauge will start to drain. There are visual cues when this occurs that depict the sudden surge of fear and unknown. To counter this, you must do things that make your hominid happy. Climb the nearest tree and swing from the branches and your dopamine will rise again.
Fleeing is not the only course of action to take. Combat in Ancestors along with most of the actions that you perform rely on a time based system. I found this system a bit problematic at times with button releases having to be very precise. There were many times where I felt I nailed it only to result in a failed execution with my hominid being injured during an attack. Like anything else though once you get acclimated to how the mechanics work, you’ll be dodging and attacking with no worries.
Now the whole meat and bones about what you are doing in this world all revolve around your neuronal skill tree. As you travel around Africa with your offspring and perform actions, you accumulate neuronal energy. Once you have accumulated a max amount of your neuronal energy you can use this energy to unlock skills that will improve your hominds senses and abilities. It is up to you though to be curious and interact with whatever you can because doing so will activate an ability in your skill tree that the neuronal energy can unlock for gameplay use. Examples of this can be something as simple as switching objects from one hand to the other, extending the time it takes for you to respond to an attack or increase your range of senses used.
When you feel comfortable about the amount of skills you’ve unlocked, you can tab over to the generation menu located at your settlement which will display your skill tree and current amount of infants you have in your clan. You can have a maximum of six infants in your clan which is labeled as reinforcements. Reinforcements allow you to select any skills you’ve unlocked that you want to prioritize for your next generation so they automatically have them unlocked and ready for use when you take control of them in adulthood.
It is incredibly important to note that when you mate and give birth to an infant, there is always a chance for a genetic mutation to occur. This mutation can be described almost like a perk system except randomized and with certain stipulations in place. An infant can be born with better metabolism or a higher tolerance to extreme weather conditions but these mutations will not become active until they reach adulthood. If for some reason your settlement loses a child or if you evolve your species before they reach adulthood, you will lose that mutation and it will not be carried forward in your lineage. Once the children have reached adulthood you essentially lock those mutations and they will become available to you on your evolution leap.
Passing to the next generation is where things can either become very exciting for the player or an annoyance. Fifteen years will pass and the original hominid clan will age into their elder stage while the infants are now adults. Your reinforced skills will be available for you to use but all other skills and neuronal energy you obtained prior will be lost. This may sound a bit off-putting but all that is required is to regain neuronal energy in the same way you’ve done before and then use that energy to unlock those skills again for use. This is where it can become a nuisance for certain players as it does ask the player to repeat a lot of what they have been doing for numerous hours but I found it to be quite the opposite. I was excited to improve my skills and I was excited to explore more of the world.
With the next generation of hominids at your control, it is up to you to venture further. There is no map to pull up on your screen as the game trusts you to be curious and explore whatever may interest you. In doing so you will always be rewarded with beautiful locations as well as new flora and fauna to discover. Every discovery that is unlocked is considered an evolutionary feat and will be added to the game’s evolution system. When the player chooses to, provided they have met the criteria, they can evolve their current species based on all the evolutionary feats they’ve unlocked.
Evolution is perhaps the most satisfying and rewarding aspect of Ancestors and I was always filled with incredible excitement to see how my achievements contributed to the process. When activated you will be shown a screen with the starting point of 10 million years and two meters to represent not only your progress but the progress of science. Depending on how well you have progressed in the game you can evolve faster than what science has discovered. Each evolutionary feat will be displayed on screen and will display the number of years you are evolving the current species. If you discovered the Father Tree, the tallest tree in the game, that can equal to 10,000 years added to your evolution. Had a confrontation with a black saber-toothed cat and that may equal up to 5,000 years added. Every significant action performed during your journey will stack and as such will add more years to your evolutionary process. Evolving is up to you and if you are not exploring the world and interacting with it, you will not progress your species in a significant way.
The best aspect about the evolutionary feats is that they come to you naturally from just playing the game. Every discovery feels organic and with enough feats under your belt you can evolve your hominid to the next species of hominidae. A million or so years will pass and you will take control of a hominid who not only looks different visually but will possess new gameplay mechanics or abilities that change the way you play. It is so incredibly satisfying and brilliantly designed that it completely consumed me. Every major evolution felt like I was playing Ancestors again for the first time and that is extremely powerful.
With all of this said I do have a few criticisms I would like to point out. From a control perspective I did find the button layout a bit cumbersome at times. Every button on the controller is used and with that comes a combination of multiple button uses that can make it a bit difficult to remember or execute. Camera work can be a bit wonky at times within the environment with certain actions not being fully visible due to a tree leaf or branch covering the majority of the screen. The AI of your fellow clanmates can be hit or miss more often than not. I can recall multiple instances where I would order them to hydrate themselves in a nearby stream only to find one or two who are not following despite my command. They will stand there displaying how dehydrated they are while the rest of us are sipping away right in front of them. Lastly there was only one moment where I felt a bit of that immersion escape me and that was during the endgame where I felt a bit of a grind kick in. It was nothing major and didn’t hurt my overall experience but it was noticeable. What had felt like natural progression accompanied by natural pacing was halted temporarily and I was reminded that it was a game. Thankfully this did not last long and I was able to reach the conclusion without feeling drained.
Visually Ancestors is a stunning game with a variety of environments in its open world, wonderful lighting and great character model work. Animations are great as well but do suffer from lots of clipping. I cannot finish this review without mentioning how fantastic the soundtrack to Ancestors is. Every track that cues up during gameplay elevates the experience further and it is some of the best music in a video game I’ve heard in recent memory.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a one of a kind game that resonated with me in an extreme way. The combination of gameplay mechanics and systems in place help to create an experience where as the player you get to create your own story. It is a game that does not want to hold your hand and trusts that you will make it on your own. It trusts you will be as curious as the ancestors you play as because it is your own curiosity that will create the eureka moments of gameplay. It is those moments that will evoke emotion in a way you weren’t expecting and that is exactly what happened during my experience. This game will not be for everyone and I can understand the dichotomy surrounding it but I do feel it is an experience worth trying. In a world where we ask for unique and challenging gameplay experiences, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is one game you should not miss.
Rating: 9 out of 10