Survival games are all the rage at the moment. Playing as a stranded individual in extreme conditions ranging from jungles to icy tundras offers a popular level of challenge and immersion, not to mention serving as useful training ground for the apocalyptic future that seems increasingly certain. It isn’t the future that concerns Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, however. Instead, Panache Digital aspire to depict the very origins of humanity, taking us way back in our evolutionary history and showing us what life may have been like when we were arboreal tribes of primates.
The idea is as neat as it is ambitious, and it is clear that a lot of research has been carried out to create the backdrop and world in which Ancestors takes place. Even having the focus on a tribe rather than an individual offers something new to the survival table.
Your first few hours in Ancestors are confusing. There is so much going on, and so many competing audio and visual signals that focusing is a challenge in and of itself. Whilst this initial confusion serves to set the mood for a world that is full of threats and dangers, it does also present a real gaming hurdle. There are a bewildering array of systems and mechanics to become familiar with, and too many of these are not clearly explained.
Your very first task is to guide an infant ape to safety and then rescue it as an adult. This requires a timing based mini-game which doesn’t really explain itself. It looks like a classic rhythm game, or even a simple button masher, but instead it’s actually about matching your button presses to the audio signals. Once you grasp this, then it is fine as a mechanic, but the lack of clarity is symptomatic of the game’s obtuse attitude to the player.
You begin Ancestors within a lush and nicely designed jungle environment, with more areas and biomes slowly becoming available as you grow your territory. These include reptile infested swamps and arid deserts, with each providing a different take on the basic survival mechanics of locating, identifying, and combining objects. Ancestors really looks the part, with the environments having a great organic feel and the various creatures being nicely animated. It is a shame that the game HUD is so unwieldy and difficult to read, and it’s one of many ways in which Ancestors seems more fun to watch somebody else play than to experience yourself.
Everything you do as tribe leader has a lasting effect, with climbing, exploring, and finding new items all developing aspects of your possible evolutionary development. This has been adapted from its scientific origins to be more suited to a game, but there is a real disconnect between the two aspects. The Neuronal energy you build up (essentially just a fancy term for XP) can be used to fix certain evolutionary steps, but the ultra-scientific menus in which you do this feel completely at odds with the feel and aesthetic of the main game. This gap is exacerbated by, you guessed it, a lack of explanation as to how neuronal energy works.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, given the early focus on rescuing and protecting an infant, your hominid only actually builds up XP if an infant is travelling with them. I spent several wasted hours exploring after safely depositing the infants back at the tribe’s home, but could only progress once I ventured into crocodile occupied swamps with an innocent infant clinging on to my back. This turns the children into virtual XP capsules and just feels odd.
Ancestors is really just lacking any real aim or signposting. Yes, survival games are often open-ended affairs, but the lack of a central game mode that takes you through the basics was really telling here. A narrative mode of some sort with a clear sense of progression would have helped to guide through the early hurdles and set the player up for the challenges to come. So much effort has clearly gone into creating and developing the world of Ancestors that it’s a huge shame that the player experience has been put to one side.
Aside from the larger scale issues discussed above, the control system is also hugely clumsy. Playing with a gamepad, the same buttons are used for multiple functions, which leads to moments of inadvertent comedy as you slowly creep forward along a narrow branch and then try to reach for a nest, only to leap to you death as the button for grab is also mapped to jump.
That’s evolution for you, I guess.