It’s been a long time between drinks for Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Désilets, whose last video game credits appearance was in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in 2010. Now almost ten years later he’s swapping swashbuckling renaissance assassins for prehistoric primates in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey – a survival experience in human evolution. As a fan of Désilets’ work and his penchant for historical settings, Ancestors has been on my radar since it was first announced back in 2015. On paper Ancestors’ premise of reliving the earliest days of humankind seems promising, but in reality it’s a repetitive slow slog that is bogged down by its convoluted systems.
Ancestors is set 10 million years ago in prehistoric Africa and sees you take control of a clan of apes, including children. There is no golden path and there is no right or wrong way to play Ancestors. You have one overarching job and that is to ensure the survival of your lineage and the future of what becomes the human race. Not an easy task for a bunch of nuffy apes who couldn’t tell a banana from a boomerang when you first begin your journey.
At its core Ancestors is a classic survival game. You must eat, drink, sleep, discover, learn, and mate – do these things and the circle of life will continue to spin. Don’t, and the human race dies thanks to you. Your health is measured by a circle made up of three different coloured rings, and it can drop and increase at random moments depending on what you’re doing. Plotting the course for our future selves is easier said than done as you’re not the only species looking to survive. There is very much a food chain and how you adapt to the African topography will determine your standing in it.
Tigers, panthers, snakes, crocodiles and warthogs are just some of the threats you’ll face along the way, all of whom who aren’t afraid to have a crack at you as you explore your surroundings. At one point I moved my clan to a new settlement and it was constantly under attack by a relentless tiger, which I managed to successfully lure away a number of times, but it wasn’t without causalities (RIP).
Venturing out into the wild is paramount to surviving, and with the world as your oyster, the more you explore and discover the more you learn and adapt. Players discover items, animals and skills by either inspecting them, through their sense of smell or hearing or by simply repeating the same tasks over and over again. Inspecting items will reveal their use, whether it be food items such as berries and other fruits, plants and other flora that can be used for shelter, healing or even protection. Often items will have multiple uses or can be used with other items to craft things such as using a rock to sharpen a branch that can be used as self-defence or a hunting tool. Your ape will also get buffs from various objects such as food, but conversely it can cause your ape to be poisoned and you’ll have to either find the panacea, wait it out or sleep it off.
You can head out into the jungle on your own or with your clan. But be warned that the AI can be incredibly stupid. Several times I noticed danger ahead and took a longer route via trees or rock cliffs only for the AI-controlled apes to ignore me and walk straight into the jaws of a python or another hungry predator.
Straying too far into undiscovered territory will trigger Fear of the Unknown, a sequence that can send your ape hysterical if you don’t conquer your fear fast enough (done by heading to a ball of white light – something that isn’t well explained). During these moments your screen will go a greyish tone and will flicker with random imagery of animals. With your ape already losing the plot due to a lack of dopamine (which can be restored by doing gratifying tasks such as eating), the constant flickering can become a huge distraction. Conquering your fear will allow you to travel further and further across Africa.
With the ground full of deadly predators, the treetops are more than your main mode of traversal – they are a safe haven from the unknown dangers that lurk on the ground below. However, jumping from tree-to-tree can be a chook raffle sometimes thanks to some poor controls. A branch could seemingly be in your grasp only for you to somehow miss it entirely and plummet to your death.
A lot of this probably sounds like a survival game enthusiast’s wet dream, however what the game fails to do effectively is explain the myriad of systems and mechanics that your journey is beholden to. As players make discoveries your brainpower increases, allowing you to upgrade your ‘skills’ (such as stronger sense of smell) along the way with Neuronal Energy in the Neuronal menu. But what is never explained in-game is that the only way to earn Neuronal Energy is by having babies present (the more the merrier) as you explore and discover. Furthermore, each skill requires a certain amount of energy to be unlocked, and as the game doesn’t give any numerical value to both the skills or your amount of energy, you never really know when you have enough energy to upgrade.
Your skill nodes
Then there’s crafting, which much like everything else isn’t explained and requires a lot of trial and error. Whether it’s sharpening branches into weapons or trying to crack coconuts to feast on, crafting often requires the right amount of force to be applied. Go too hard and you’ll snap your branch into pieces, go too soft and it’ll achieve nothing. I understand the game doesn’t want to hold your hand (which it tells you at the start) and is all about learning, but it would be good if there was some form of indication of where the sweet spot is.
You can choose to advance 15 years into the future but only if you have children in your clan, and only if you’re at your current active settlement, something that again isn’t made clear until you navigate the Evolution menu. If you haven’t managed to copulate you can find apes without a clan in the jungle. Get in their good books by feeding them or doing whatever they need (again, not explained) and you will be on your way to raising one big happy family. Once you understand how it all works, the evolution system is rather interesting to play around in.
In order to get jiggy with it you need to form a bond with a fertile companion, this can be done by grooming one another until you’re ready to take the next step and mate. Mating is a bit of a hoot (quite literally), with enamoured couples not scared to do the noisy deed in front of onlookers, and once the slap and tickle is over your partner will be pregnant and instantly ready to pop. Once you decide to give birth the game will fast-forward 15 months to when your little furball is ready to tackle the world.
One big happy family
While the game looks gorgeous enough it is marred by some technical shortcomings. Clipping is a common occurrence throughout the game, some animations are stiff and I experienced a couple of freezes. Nothing a good old patch can’t fix.
While Ancestors is designed to largely simulate the origins of the human race, it often does so at the expense of fun. A lack of explanation about how key mechanics work means that players are spending substantial parts of the game’s early hours trying to grasp everything. If you can persist with the game long enough to get into the meat and potatoes of it all you may find a game worth playing. That’s if the initial repetitive slog doesn’t send you bananas first.
Reviewed on PC via Epic Games Store // Review code supplied by publisher