For anyone even slightly intrigued about taking on the role of a formative hominid, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a totally unique and sophisticated experience, but impatient gamers may feel shorted by the ruthless difficulty or emphasis on self-directed goals.
Innovation is built on past failure. Any written coverage of the new game from Assassin’s Creed mastermind Patrice Désilets and his team seeks no less than to upend that most pernicious standard of icon-hunting gameplay which his blockbuster series originated, popularized, and drove deep down into the dirt. Every year since, gamers have been greeted by a constant swath of open-world sandbox collectathons, with methodical upgrades doing their best to camouflage repetitive gameplay. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is far and away from that style of gameplay, with the overall sense of stunned discovery and emphasis on exploration and evolution is presented here in wholly unique manner. This is not another re-skinned Assassin’s Creed, but a tiger of an entirely different stripe.
The elevator pitch for Ancestors would probably mention a combination of survival sim with the evolution of the human species. While that description is sufficient at a baseline level, the game requires a very particular approach to that idea, one requiring contemplative distance and patient engagement with its various inner workings. Rather than commanding a specific standalone character in charge of a group, Ancestors sees players guiding a collective of primitive hominids at a point starting 10 million years in the past, awake and vulnerable in a jungle with no directed guidance as to how to progress quickly to the next stage of growth.
Assassin’s Creed is probably a poor reference point, although your hominids can pursue environmental landmarks in order to trigger a spinning-camera cinematic familiar who's activated a “focus point.” Aside from these scripted instances, Ancestors does not offer any other kind of hand-holding at all. You manage a group of primitive hominids and learn what’s required to survive in the wild, which may include anything from combining various detritus to create tools or experimenting with foodstuffs found high up in the forest canopy and hoping for ideal digestion.
Some key differences separate this journey, though. Most importantly, Ancestors features minimal narrative audio and text, and the only time you ever even see words on the screen regards vague achievements (like hitting an animal with a particular rock or using a tool correctly). No, the primary narrative involves the geographical advancement of your clan as you navigate from one biome to another, and any dictated summary only happens inside your own head as you play, as the game avoids any indiscreet storytelling, content to subsist on a few wordless cinematics as you make your way further and further into the landscape.
The game experience can actually feel downright hostile at times. If predators appear and take apart your clan one by one, you may very well lose the game entirely, which may constitute a complete reset. Before you think this makes Ancestors some kind of roguelike, it’s relatively difficult for this to occur, and would probably require a particularly ignorant and unfeeling approach, but it is possible. So long as you keep a considerate eye on your fellow primates and learn how to deal with any adjacent predators preying on your clan settlement, you’ll make slow progress to each upgrade and scrap of geographic progress. Should you avoid an early end, choosing to evolve to the next generation ages each of your hominids up; elders die, adults become elders, and children turn to adults. At any time you can even select an evolution point, which upgrades your clan in accordance with specific bonuses, pushing you up a million years or more but punishing you for failing to advance in step with actual ancestral expectations.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself joyously distracted by each scrap of painstaking progress. That could mean exploring out ahead for a new settlement with a small crew of hominids, contending with threats and looking out for landmarks and clean water sources in the distance. Even after figuring out how to craft weaponry and tools, no single member of a clan feels overpowered, and increasingly hostile predators and prey animals emerge out of the unknown territories to test your skills. Hunting and attacking these creatures takes some time to get used to, but a kind of randomization mechanic ensures that slaughtering a rhino is not a simple matter of pressing a button quick enough — sometimes an individual hominid must be lost for the clan at large to persevere.
The number of progression mechanics available in Ancestors is well beyond the scope of this review, and the game seems to take delight in hiding its most essential leveling-up secrets. Progression-wise, carrying an infant primate on your back or having one close by grants you “neural energy,” and accumulating enough of it while unlocking upgrades lets you boost certain abilities or learn new ones throughout your journey. Similar to the Elder Scrolls series, performing specific actions is usually what’s needed to evolve and make higher tier basic actions available; if you’d like to stand straight and walk on two feet for a longer period, simply make a point to walk on two feet more frequently.
It sounds straightforward, but the aforementioned lack of hand-holding means that certain sections of the game can sometimes feel too vague and diversionary. Soon enough, though, players will start to put together what’s expected of them, or figure out the most ideal areas in the map for a new settlement. Patches of the environment may appear so hostile that committing to a new home is an intense strategic decision, a risky venture that can end up resulting in a few losses. Is there a Machairodus stalking a nearby watering hole? You might have to deal with it directly before breathing easy in a new home, and ignoring it to explore further on will mean contending with periodic attacks on your brethren.
If there was one word to use in order to classify how Ancestors plays, it’s slowly. Learning how different elements of the environment combine, conflict with, and compliment each other takes time. Cold rain can inhibit progress, until you find a particular plant which counteracts that status. The savanna’s direct sunlight compromises your stamina, but combining certain tools with certain resources can help protect from that effect as well. At no particular moment will any of these answers be provided for you outright — they emerge while attempting to hit rocks against plants, plants against rocks, plants against plants, and so on and so forth.
As a survival sim, Ancestors is complex and competent, but also falls prey to many of the predictable foibles and frustrations of the genre. Highlighting the specific item you wish to pick up can either be simple or close to impossible, and misdirected inputs can cause a tragic fall from a tree when swinging through the jungle or a woefully misdirected counterattack on a rhino. These instances don’t utterly subvert the intended flow of the game or its inclination to accidental mishaps, but they can be quite discouraging, especially when they tilt a carefully balanced sense of comfort to a desperate grasp for survival in a matter of seconds.
On a pause screen, players will see dozens of tips and tricks that might help them on their epic journey from point A to point B, but there are plenty of hints delivered in a more subtle and clever fashion. Catching up on sleep lets you watch your clan dream, with fluttering images revealing minor but meaningful hints as to how to get ahead, and audible cues let you know when a strike with a weapon may successfully alter another or potentially land a hit an target. The sense of learning never feels superficially coy, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that particularly vital techniques may evade an otherwise successful journey through the game, simply because you didn’t combine the correct items or use them in highly specific ways.
A wonderful soundtrack accompanies the desperate grasps and stumbles, subtly shifting with each new biome. It’s not exactly procedural, but seems like it is, drifting in and out of the action with ocarinas, flutes, tribal drums and choirs. Your hominids seem just emotive enough to be readable, visibly delighting in the sweet smell of a new edible resource or grasping at their throats when thirsty. Weather is as unpredictable as can be, and a day spent in a jungle cave settlement crafting weapons feels appropriately cozy with the heavens cracking outside, and each separate biome in the game feels carefully designed and rich with visual flourishes.
The most pressing issue with the game is its assortment of bugs, which are admittedly expected. Fellow hominids can be difficult to wrangle en route to a new settlement, and often deny eating an item or using it to protect themselves against the elements. It’s unpredictable enough to be irritating, and you may find yourself simply taking brief control of a different hominid character to self-apply a resource, but it’s sensible to expect a few patches in the coming months to periodically improve companion AI. For what it’s worth, though, they function as expected more times than not in this launch build.
This review has been careful to avoid anything in the realm of spoilers. In other games, that might constitute dramatic story beats or hidden power-ups, but Ancestors seemingly has no care for either of these. The narrative feels both personal and epic in equal measure, where fighting off tenacious predators at a new settlement can constitute a full hour of game time, and you could spend just as long trying to figure out how to extract honey from a bee hive.
There is very, very little to compare with Ancestors, and its capacity for non-verbal storytelling never seems to falter, with the path through its various territories as engrossing as it is dangerous. With numerous survival sim and open-world games available, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey truly does feel like a one-of-a-kind game, a meditation on evolution that draws equally from scientific research and the types of games most of us play these days. For anyone even slightly intrigued about taking on the role of a formative hominid, this is a totally unique and sophisticated experience, but impatient gamers may feel shorted by the ruthless difficulty or emphasis on self-directed goals.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey releases on August 27 on the Epic Games Store, with PS4 and Xbox One versions expected to release in December 2019. A digital PC copy was provided to Screen Rant, for purposes of review.