In a gaming industry packed with sequels and reboots it’s nice to see something truly unique. Patrice Désilets, the visionary mastermind behind the Assassin’s Creed games, and his team have created a game experience like none other.
We are all out of Africa, as they say. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey takes us back 150 million years to the cradle of humanity, when the primates that would one day become the human race fought for survival on daily basis in a hostile and unfamiliar world.
The general idea is to guide your particular lineage from primates to that of our earliest proto-human ancestors.
The first thing that you notice as you start playing the game is that Ancestors needs a thumping great manual. But, just as our ancestors didn’t have a manual for the planet Earth, the developers give us little or no help playing the game.
Unlike your usual survival game, the genre that matches Ancestors the closest, you play as a character that operates at the same level as you. The primates of Ancestors are a blank slate. You know what they need to do, but they don’t and the game give you little in the way of prompts (even on the most informative setting).
My first trip into primeval Africa was curtailed by a game crash, something that happened a few times. With the console version not due for a while I think it’s fair to say that the PC version is, unofficially at least, in “early access”.
Setting out again, my first task was to rescue a frightened cub lost in the jungle. Following the cub’s cries, I soon found him. The game prompted for me to calm the cub down via a contextual menu on the left of the screen (a menu that comes in very handy when trying to work out what you can in different situations). Like many of the interactions in the game, sorting out the cub was all about timing button presses in order to fill a bar and make the cub come to me. It’s important to carry a cub on your back as this give your more neuronal experience.
Using intelligence, you can get your primate to focus on your surroundings, revealing yellow squares. Focusing on yellow squares reveals what the object is. New objects will highlight as question marks. If you approach the unknown object you have the opportunity to examine it and find out what it is. This is the major mechanic that allows your tribe to learn about the world. The more you explore the more neurons develop.
The three most important things are eating, drinking and sleeping. Your initial settlement will have a stream for drinking and sleep places to rest. You can sleep anywhere, but it is only at your settlement that you can advance by turning experiences into memories. There are many different food sources out in the world, for berries to the meat on carcasses. Some food may make you sick – your primitive stomach unable to cope with it. Keep eating and wash it down with some water and you’ll build up an immunity.
Ancestors is a multi-generational game, cubs being the key to your clan’s survival. Having children is the only to advancing in the game. The more kids, the more your discoveries are passed on. You’ll need diverse couplings as inbreeding is not on the table.
Transferring skills to future generations depends on having children to pass on the knowledge. You can pass on one skill per child (with the odd mutation added for good measure). You need to get a good balance, don’t over achieve and have too many more skills than you can pass on to the next generation.
The environment is amazing. You get around by climbing and leaping from trees. You can run around on the ground, but you risk getting attacked by dangerous predators. As you explore you will find new landmarks. Venturing further out and you primate will come across unknown areas that fill them with fear. Its only by identifying familiar objects in this new environment that allows you’re your simian avatar to conquer their fear and continue.
As I explored, I came across other apes, frightened creatures that, once consoled, joined my tribe (increasing the gene-pool). I found meteorites to examine and plants that heal. As my primate developed, I was able to transfer objects to my other hand. I could use a rock to hit a stick and make a spear. I was playing for quite a few hours before I realised that you can clout a predator around the head if you are holding a rock.
Ancestors is a brutal game. I’ve had a whole tribe almost wiped out by predators. A mistimed dodge has resulted in my simian being mauled to death. Badly calculated leaps have left my primate avatar dead on the jungle floor.
Experiencing this daily struggle that each of our ancestors endured really makes you appreciate just how unlikely it is that our forefathers actually survived and consequentially how unlikely our own existence is.
The game is great on PC, but I think that Ancestors, in its present form, at least, is going to be a hard sell to the console set when it comes out for PS4 and XB1 later in the year. I’m not putting console owners down, but Ancestors is more of the cleaver sort of niche game that has always been the bread and butter of the PC gaming experience for as long as there have been PC games. Your average console gamer, because they are, generally, not exposed to this sort of thing that often is likely to go WTF?
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a clever game, cleverer than me. I’m pretty certain there’s some amazing stuff going on under the bonnet. Is like a primate version of The Sims, where the sims don’t know what anything is.
It’s a game that requires patience, which may get the better of some players. If you are interested in something very different, you should most definitely give it a go.