Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey sure isn’t afraid of throwing you into the deep end. My first foray into Panache Digital’s survival game began as a young ape alone in a dark forest, the imagined laughs of hyenas and snarls of tigers echoing in the trees in a confusing cacophony. Before I could finish reading the message detailing my very first objective, a warning popped up and demanded I dodge out of the way–of what, I couldn’t be sure. Not knowing what to do, I couldn’t respond in time, and my ape was left alone, scared, hallucinating, bleeding, and poisoned, my screen a milky display of dark green and shifting shadows. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do or where I should go. I began to wander and, thankfully, about 30 minutes later I found the rest of my clan.
At first, I believed the entire ordeal was simply a poor start. As it turns out, that first journey through the confusion of a dangerous jungle, blindly limping in different directions in hopes of finding someone to help me, is a fairly accurate depiction of what your journey in Ancestors will regularly entail. My time with the game saw me suffer similarly disorienting fates over and over, testing me to figure out what I’d done wrong and then do my best to adapt. Ancestors prides itself on giving you as little information as it can and daring you to rely on your ingenuity and resourcefulness to survive. Though the game fulfills its promise to do the former, it fails to deliver a compelling reason as to why you’d even want to rise up to the challenge of the latter.
You play as a member of an ape clan in 10 million BC Africa, and you try to ensure your lineage continues through to two million BC–the time period archaeologists say our ancestors’ evolution finally transitioned us from ape-like beings into a new, more human species. To survive that long, you need to manage how much you eat, drink, and sleep while also steering clear of predators and taking care of injuries. As your life continues, and you interact with more aspects of the world, you grow smarter and acquire new skills, which you can then pass on to your descendants. Upon death, you take control of another ape within your clan and continue the process, striving to evolve into a brand-new, more human-like species before your entire clan completely dies out.
Every second of real-world time translates into a minute in-game–except during sleep, which speeds this equation up. Your in-game progress produces opportunities for further clan evolution to then jump ahead in time by months, decades, or millennia. If you or one of your clanmates becomes pregnant, for example, giving birth to a baby will cause you to leap forward 15 months. For significantly larger jumps in time, exploring as an adult with a baby on your back will allow you to accrue energy to further improve your neurological network and unlock new abilities, which then allows you to advance a whole generation and move time forward a full 15 years. A jump in generation can be followed by an evolution, which moves you to a new, calculated placement on the timeline that’s dependent on which advancements you make. Adapting your metabolism to new plants doesn’t give you as huge a boost, for instance, as learning to use rocks as tools. Evolutions push you ahead tens of thousands of years, providing the most efficient way of getting from 10 million BC to two million BC.
It’s definitely not easy, though, especially since your clan needs to sustain itself throughout those eight million years in a single lineage. Though your clanmates learn what you do in real time, losing an entire clan means you have to restart from a brand-new lineage and relearn everything you’ve previously discovered. If your clan dies after you’ve adapted to eating fish, for example, you’ll not only need to go through the entire process of reacquainting your diet, but you’ll have to teach your new lineage how to make fishing spears all over again. When it’s a few minutes of knowledge lost, it’s not that big of a deal. But when you’re losing hours of progress, it can be quite disheartening.
Instead of saving your skills and knowledge between runs, Ancestors records your progress by keeping track of how far you travel. Initially, you can only begin a new lineage on a cliff within a jungle. However, you can discover and unlock other starting points in the jungle, and even reach other biomes, such as a lake-filled swamp and arid savanna. Unlocking these new start points provides welcome variety–as each environment contains its own unique ecosystem of creatures and plants as well as its own set of weather-based challenges–but your primates always begin in the same clueless state. Even if you already know what to do, you’ll have to retrace your steps and go through the same motions over again to recreate the same conditions that pushed your ape’s neurological network to evolve to where you were in the game before your clan was wiped out–ideally with more of your clan intact this time so you can go further.
This gameplay loop can be immensely frustrating, and it’s one that gets more drawn-out the more you play. By my fourth lineage, it was taking close to two hours to retrace my steps and redo everything I had already had to relearn a few times already. There’s nothing in the game that allows you to recover from a failure and quickly rebuild what’s been lost, either, which is demoralizing when your downfall is your own fault and downright frustrating when it’s just bad luck. I’ve lost entire clans because of my own hubris, sure, but I’ve also lost a clan because, after going through an evolution, the game randomly spawned my clan next to a tiger’s den and there were no materials nearby to make weapons. I spent the final 15 minutes of that eight-hour run helplessly watching my entire clan be slowly devoured before needing to start over.
I couldn’t go back and try a different approach to escaping the massacre of that unfortunate run because there’s no manual save feature in Ancestors. The game saves automatically when you discover a new location or go to sleep, with each lineage tied to one save file. You can manually back up your save to your PC, but there’s no easy or straightforward in-game solution to help you avoid a punishing death.
What small satisfaction the game does provide is consistently ruined by violent predators, though the threat does lessen once you make it far enough into the neurological network’s expansive skill and perk tree.
Having to redo everything you’ve already done also keeps you from discovering new things–which is paramount to surviving and one of the few good parts of Ancestors. With practically zero tutorials, Ancestors forces you to be experimental in order to succeed. There’s joy to be had in bashing different items together to see what happens and then compiling and testing hypotheses. As much as I was frustrated by needing to redo the entire process of creating the aforementioned fishing spear in repeated playthroughs, I felt genuine accomplishment in figuring it out the first time. Most of Ancestors’ puzzles can be solved with logical sense, so the challenge comes in figuring out where to find the materials you think you need. Granted, this being a game, there are occasionally arbitrary hurdles you need to jump through to build certain tools, but you’ll typically only find these associated with more advanced, late-game tasks.
You don’t get to enjoy much of the satisfaction in discovering new things and regularly evolving, though. Predators repeatedly sneak up on you and interrupt your efforts, which typically causes you to drop whatever you were messing with. It’s disheartening to want to explore and forge new tools, only to then have to put your odyssey on hold to limp back to your clan and deal with your injuries–and then be attacked again almost immediately upon heading back out. Yes, the jungle is a dangerous place. But when a tiger leaps out of the reeds to aid a crocodile that’s trying to eat me, it’s a stark reminder of how Ancestors upholds the need to rise to the challenge of survival above the experience of evolution. Historically, it makes sense, as our ape ancestors undoubtedly lived many more years as prey than predator. But in the context of a video game, the constant barrage of spawning enemies gets in the way of the gameplay loop of learning, responding, and evolving–a roadblock that’s only chipped away at and eventually toppled once you acquire the skills and tools so that your entire clan can work together and put up an adequate defense against the creatures that hunt you. Much has to be done to get to that point, though, so contending with larger predators–especially the collection of deadly wildcats that stalk and pounce on you at seemingly every quiet moment–feels unfair early on, especially in areas where there are no trees to escape up into. Dealing with their near-constant attacks or the wounds they inflict can make it discouragingly difficult to actually experiment and evolve.
The closest you come to feeling safe while playing Ancestors is when you’re up in the trees. You spend a lot of time in the branches as a result, but unfortunately there’s no easy way to travel between them. You can climb practically anything in Ancestors provided you have the stamina, so scrambling up into a tree is a quick, painless process. However, with no way to easily course correct yourself–and since trees are rarely positioned in a straight line–you typically only get to enjoy a few seconds of fast-paced, energetic movement before you run out of branch, plummet to earth, and possibly break your legs if you were too high up. And that’s a shame, because it’s actually pretty fun to leap from branch to branch once you’ve got the swing of things. There just aren’t many opportunities to use what you’ve learned once you’ve got the mechanics down. Upon leaving the forest, your chances slim down even more, as the follow-up areas are sparse on the first environment’s signature large trees.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey lingers for far too long on its most toilsome aspects. The game does reward initial experimentation, but then asks you to repeat processes over and over again without any means of securing your legacy. It’s an absolute grind to reach the closest that Ancestors has to an endgame goal–survive for eight million years–and one costly mistake, whether the game’s or your own, can erase everything you’ve accomplished. What small satisfaction the game does provide is consistently ruined by violent predators, though the threat does lessen once you make it far enough into the neurological network’s expansive skill and perk tree. But as it stands, investing in Ancestors’ journey demands too much effort for too little reward.