Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was announced during the 2018 Game Awards, the next game from Patrice Desilets, who is known for his role as the creative director behind the first three games in the Assassin’s Creed series and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Not so different from his previous work, Ancestors also explores our history, but all the way back to the first days of mankind.
Spiritual Content: Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is based on the early days of man and the theory of evolution. I bring this up in this section because science and scripture collide here. This topic is not touched though since there is no story within the game. Players control a group of early hominids that become more human-like over time. As a result, I feel that some players may want to use discernment and decide whether they are comfortable with playing the game.
Violence: Players will be surviving the dangers of the wild, which means fighting against predatory animals. Enemy animals can be seen hunting one another and will also come after the player character. Players can craft tools used to defend themselves with and stab an enemy. Blood appears when the player or enemies take damage. A bleeding status effect can also occur, though it can be stopped with the right resource. Players can also die from a fall if jumping from a high point and see the dead hominid laying on the ground.
Sexual Content: Players can court hominids of the opposite sex in their clan, which is done through a grooming mechanic. The camera will pan upward and point at the sky when the act of mating occurs. The female can give birth afterward; no details are shown here aside from the parents welcoming their newborn baby into the world.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an ambitious video game. The best category I could fit it into is the survival genre, though it does things much differently than one might expect. There is no story, other than that you take control of a clan of Hominids during the first days of mankind in the African jungle. It is up to the player to not only help the clan survive, but to advance the species through learning about the world and experience—even something so simple as trying to walk upright for a few seconds. That is what it’s like to live in the world of Ancestors, and the developers have gone to great lengths to lean into that premise.
The land of Africa in 10,000 B.C. is a visual treat as your clan will eventually have to make it out of its jungles and into the stagnant waters of swamps and the dry deserts. Your clan will need to brave heavy rains and perilous creatures such as snakes, wild boars, and deadly sabertooth tigers. You won’t have any world map or objective markers to guide you, and you will have to overcome the fear of the unknown, discovering the world on your own.
We’ll start with the controls since that’s where the game starts with its players. The controls may seem scary and complicated at first, but are similar to the puppeteer concept from the original Assassin’s Creed. Most of the face buttons will activate the sense of sight, smell, and hearing, while the triggers will help focus on the things you detect. The bumpers are used to grab and interact with objects and essential to how you will be crafting/altering some resources. On the flip side, the easier thing to learn is climbing trees, which is more automatic and requires you to push the ‘”A” button to jump between trees and branches. The controls can seem overwhelming at first, but I got the hang of them after a while. Learning the layout is only the first step in figuring out how to do everything else in the game.
The spirit of Ancestors is that we know very little as early mankind, so the game itself carries that spirit and only shows us the controls through a short tutorial, then leaves us to figure out the rest for ourselves. The best place to start is identifying things with your senses, then picking things up to inspect them and find out what they are. Looking for food sources and finding things to make your first tools is the best route to go. This is where the survival mechanics of keeping yourself fed, your thirst quenched, and well-rested comes in. The micromanagement of those needs strangely feels like one of the more simplified aspects of exploring the world, and it’s greatly appreciated, since most survival games lean way too heavily in that area.
As you keep doing more in the world, you will gain experience if you carry a baby with you to pass on this knowledge—carrying two of them gives you twice the experience. All of the experience points you earn can be seen as a giant orb in the center of the skill menu. One of the first things that will be learned is motor skills, like switching an object from one hand to another, but goes further into advancing senses and increased awareness, which will help you to better evade enemies.
All that I’ve shared so far were things that didn’t take long to learn how to do, but there were a few hang-ups. Much of the more involved actions in Ancestors are done with timing and audio cues. In just about every major action, you’ll need to match your timing with the cue. For example, when crafting, you’ll hold the alter button until you hear a chime. If your timing is off, you’ll potentially break what you have in your hands. Other major actions in which this comes into play are combat and grooming. I failed in many of those interactions until I realized that this mechanic was more universal to the game and began to appreciate it.
One of the biggest areas that could’ve used some better explanation is combat. It took a long time before I realized the same audio cue system applied to the combat, along with holding the stick in the direction I wanted to go before hitting the ‘A’ button. Holding the stick in a direction away from the predatory animal will dodge the attack (if you get the timing right) and pointing it towards the enemy will execute a counter-attack. I learned all of that from the game’s subreddit before I fully understood how combat worked. However, my many lost battles with an angry warthog that I eventually defeated opened up more defensive and resilience traits that would go with me into future generations.
The ultimate goal of Ancestors is to advance generations and eventually make a leap into the next stage of evolution. There are milestones that players must accomplish before a jump through the timeline can be initiated. It’s not only about learning as much as you can and picking up a bunch of skills. I’m sure that there are varying speeds of progress towards this goal depending on how a player chooses to spend their time, but I was in no rush and wanted to take my time to learn everything I could before attempting such a thing. However, I fear that many will just want to get the final evolution as quickly as possible.
The lack of guidance and information is one of Ancestors’ biggest detriments. Having to look up and research some of the mechanics and learning how things work will largely be an inconvenience to many who give the game a try. However, I consider that level of open-ended gameplay to be one of the things that the game does so well. As my clan members are learning the basics of existence and living, everything I have learned how to do has helped them advance. It is a rewarding experience to see my clan benefit from the things that I learn and experience every time I play the game.
One of my favorite moments I experienced when playing Ancestors was when I learned how to drink and eat. As I examined my first body of water, my hominid took a drink of it—the rest of my clan did the same after they watched me do it. The same thing also occurred when I discovered our first food sources. In video games, we are so accustomed to unlocking new skills for our character to evolve and get stronger, but with Ancestors, the things I learned and experiences I had strengthened my whole clan. To see my clan interact with the world and utilize the traits I was unlocking is something I can’t say that I have ever experienced within a video game before.
There are more details I could go further into when talking about Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. Though the beauty of the game is for players to organically experience and discover all that it has to offer. It would be a disservice for me to sit here and tell you how the whole thing works. Ancestors is one of the most fascinating gaming experiences I’ve ever had, but I can’t say everyone will have the same experience. The game leaves so much for its players to figure out and controls that take some time to get the hang of. If you’re looking for instant gratification, you won’t get that here. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey asks that you take in every minute of the evolutionary process.
The Bottom Line
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is one of the most fascinating video games of the year, but it's objective to be so open-ended hinders itself with a complicated control scheme and steep learning curve.