Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review

2001 is a long way away.

The death of Pa was inevitable. Something of a connoisseur, Pa’s ambition in life was to try every type of food available at least once. It was Pa who discovered that the red berries near the cave were tasty, and that the brown mushrooms hurt to eat. It was gravity that ended Pa. An over-confident leap from a particularly high branch found him meeting the ground with a sickening thud, all the fruit and vegetables in the world useless on his broken bones. But that was four million years ago and we’ve moved on since then.

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an engine for this kind of story. In some ways, it’s the logical conclusion of the survival genre, the story of how humanity rose from the jungles of Africa to dominate the planet. Starting quite literally from scratch, you’ll lead your clan of hominids from the treetops to the open savannah and beyond, all the while learning how to master the environment around you.

Patrice Désilets, creative lead on the original Assassin’s Creed, has lent his talents to this new time-hopping tale. The influence is clear in the traversal mechanics which allow your hominids to climb, leap and swing around the opening jungle setting with ease.

That is, at least, once you’ve mastered the skills involved. Ancestors makes a point of explaining itself as little as possible; outside of a few basic tutorials, the rest of humanity’s evolution is up to you. Your clan has the potential to defeat any predator, build never-before-seen tools and swing like Tarzan across the treetops, but it’s up to you as the player to make these things happen. Hence the tragic death of Pa – a little more practice with traversal and maybe he would have lived.

The deliberate lack of guidance can feel a little overwhelming at first. Your goal lies some ten million years in the future, but that seems impossible when all you’ve got is a rock and some dry grass. So you explore a little, fumble about, maybe bash a few rocks together until – aha! This one is a little sharper than the others! And so the game’s crafting recipes present themselves, rather more organically than we are perhaps used to.

It was Dwu who first learned to fight. When the Golden Lion came to the camp, she was the one who brandished a sharpened stick and stood her ground while others ran in fear. What remained of the clan – all female, as it happens – feasted well on meat that night – a little tough to digest, but they would quickly learn to relish the flavour.

Whitney Houston believed that the children are our future. That’s certainly true of these proto-humans – no matter how great the discovery or how epic the encounter, you won’t be able to use the knowledge to evolve unless there are children present to witness your deeds and learn from them. Following the Golden Lion Incident, my main task was to rebuild the clan. This involves finding lost hominids out in the wilderness and befriending them with food, medicine, water, or whatever else they need.

Before too long, I had found the male I needed to start rebuilding our clan. If you pick a few lice off somebody else, they’ll agree to mate with you – I’m told this is pretty much exactly how courtship still works in the modern world – and so we began the task of repopulation.

The act of reproduction is tastefully achieved off-screen. Actually giving birth, however, results in a fifty-five-second unskippable cutscene showing adorable moments between mother, father and child. It’s touching the first time. However given that my situation required this particular male to become the clan bicycle for a few years, this quickly stopped being cute after the fourth or fifth consecutive birth. I’m writing this paragraph during one such birth scene, having spent the last ten minutes or so grooming, bedding and mating.

The first time all this happened, it felt interesting and dynamic. I’d pulled humanity from the brink, ensuring the future of an entire species. However, since it’s not possible to learn new abilities without children, this quickly became a repeated pattern every time I entered a new evolutionary phase. I’m aware that evolution is a slow process, but this isn’t the only incident – every new generation, every evolution and every new location are all accompanied by a long, unskippable cutscene. Even unlocking new abilities requires holding down the ‘upgrade’ button for what feels like a week or so as the neural pathways slowly knit new connections. Thematic, sure, but no less annoying.

It was Ruk who became the clan’s first ‘healer’. Others had found that certain leaves were good at numbing pain, that plant matter could be used to stem the flow of blood, but the nimble fingers of Ruk’s bloodline gave him the dexterity to grind raw materials into a medicinal paste that meant even the weakest elder stood a chance against predators. Had we known how to do this before, so many lives could have been saved.

The process of evolution in Ancestors is pleasingly open-ended. Theoretically, many of the crafting recipes and special interactions are available to the player from minute one, barring a few manual dexterity upgrades. This means that your path to evolution, to a certain extent, is very much your own.

Discovering a new use for an old tool is always exciting, opening up new options every time. The game will politely inform you that you maybe haven’t explored all the possibilities with a particular object, but otherwise you’re free to do things in whatever way you see fit. Mastering the world feels like a very personal journey, with new areas coming with their own flora and fauna to keep things interesting. When the thing you used to use to bandage wounds is nowhere to be found, it’s time to adapt.

The world feels enormous. The opening jungle felt like plenty of space for an entire game, until I discovered the next area, and the next, and the next. It’s not clear how randomised the starting area is each time – I found myself occasionally revisiting old hideouts, bizarrely with items still exactly where I’d left them half a million years ago – but it feels as though progression is designed such that, by the time you’re starting to hunt, rather than hide, there aren’t so many branches to swing from anymore.

Progression comes mainly through evolution, achieved by doing something new. Use a new tool for the first time, eat your first fish, etcetera. Unfortunately, this quickly becomes a grind if you’re looking for quick progress. Early on, it’s extremely rewarding to learn that a stick can be used to hit a charging boar and a rock can bash a lion in the face. Turning the tables on a creature you’d previously been running terrified from is a wonderful moment.

Less rewarding is having to then try every type of rock and stick on every type of boar, lion, snake or whatever else the African wilds can throw at you. Surely if I know a sharp stick will hurt a golden lion, I can reasonably assume that’ll probably work on a white one?

A lot of love has gone into Ancestors, and it shows. The grindy nature of evolution, coupled with the fact that each evolutionary stage comes with a mandatory five-minute wait before you can start learning and progressing again, are unfortunate drawbacks to what can be an extremely engaging experience. If you can overlook these issues, there’s a lot of depth and a great deal of satisfaction to be had in lending our forefathers a helping hand.

[Reviewed on PC]