Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an incredible test of patience. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it’s not so good, but it’s an incredibly deep experience that even after 40+ hours I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of. On the other hand, though, it’s an experience I don’t think I’ll ever go back to. It’s a battle of wills in how much am I willing to endure to accomplish something, but sometimes I need an idea battered into my head in order to really understand it.
If there’s one singular thing to know about Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey going into it, it’s that if you want any real objective, look elsewhere. Ancestors turns players loose and doesn’t give you any objectives other than to survive and evolve. This is a look back at our past, and part of what it took to get us to where we are.
Players start off as an ape 10,000,000 years ago. Players don’t have any real skills, instead there are several intricate systems at play that all intertwine with one another. The biggest one here is the evolution system. As players perform tasks over and over again they unlock new synapses in a menu that unlocks new abilities. This serves as the hominids “learning” system, and how to perform basic tasks like switching which hands hold an item to how to drop items while running.
At first, things are slow going, but as new synapses open up things become a bit more cohesive. Hell, even making your ape stand up (very briefly at first) to move can open up new abilities. The first few hours of discovery are great. Most things you do throughout even the entirety of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey are trial-and-error. You will almost never set out to do something, but end up doing it entirely on accident.
The problem here is that even when you figure out how to do something you have to repeat, and repeat, and repeat it in order to unlock a new synapse. It’s a very repetitive experience that rears its ugly head throughout. Even the first few hours (when I’m supposed to be uncovering new abilities) are pretty repetitive.
As players are exploring in the opening areas they can use their senses to identify resources, enemies, or even other clan members. I spend the first few hours of each lineage (more on that in a moment), just identifying different items to build up my hominids skill set. Granted, I rather enjoyed uncovering landmarks and other points of interest, but after a third or fourth set of clan members it becomes tiresome.
Since the point of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is ultimately discovery and evolution, there really isn’t a right or wrong way to play. There are quite literally zero objectives to reach your goal, and this becomes the experience you want to make it, for better or worse. Since this discovery often ends in the death of hominid clan members, I tried to learn how to breed as early as possible. The only way to lose in Ancestors is for all of your clan members to die, so breeding is important. The game expects you to fail, especially in your first lineage, so don’t be afraid of death, be afraid of the amount of repetition headed your way if you have to start over.
That being said, uncovering a new way that a seemingly innocuous item interacts with something in the world is incredibly exciting. That moment when you unlock a new synapse and see how something you’ve been trying to do fits in the grand scheme of things is when Ancestors is at its best.
There are a lot of things in the world that are interactive or out to get you. Climbing up a tree and discovering a nest with edible eggs resulted in being assaulted by a giant eagle, while the jungle floor is just as deadly with black mambas. It’s important to use your senses to uncover the world around you while you’re experimenting with items. A small stamina circle (reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus) indicates how much survivability your hominid has. Different effects like extreme cold, venom from snakes, or even broken limbs can cause that circle to get smaller and smaller, and depletion of it means death for your character.
Luckily, after death you jump straight over to another member of the clan that can continue on with what you’ve learned in that lineage. It’s a little frustrating to lose an ape early, but that’s also part of the learning experience. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is just as much an experience of learning as it is about surviving, even if it can take a while to really dig in.
Visually, the world looks stunning. Apes are detailed and expressive, and the lush jungle fills up your whole screen. It can be a bit difficult to identify items or dangerous creatures due to how much is on the screen at any one time, but the vibrant green contrasts well against other landmarks like waterfalls or older trees.
Since Ancestors is currently only available on PC, that’s what this review is based on. It ran really well on my RTX 2080, and I didn’t notice any frame dips or heat issues like I did with Man of Medan. One interesting design choice is that it’s built for controller use. You certainly can use mouse and keyboard, but using a controller is much more intuitive. Even when using a controller, I had plenty of issues actually controlling my ape. I died more times to falling than any predators, because my ape wouldn’t catch a branch even though I was doing exactly what I should have been. Climbing rock faces I would often get stuck on a ledge I had previously climbed up. It was more frustrating than anything, but after trying both control schemes, I opted to continue with a controller.
Finally, a lot of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is designed to be used with a headset. After learning how to alter items, a lot of them using audio cues to time right on the alter itself. Again, it’s something Ancestors doesn’t explicitly say, but something you’ll stumble across. Similarly, using the aural sense helps you find predators or other clan members. The sound design here is stellar, and something I don’t think we see a lot of from other titles.
Ultimately, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an experience I don’t think we’ll ever see again. In some ways it’s incredibly innovative, but other times it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall. I’m not sure I’ll go back to it for any other reason than to prove to myself I’m smarter than the game is, but the scope of everything built into the world is so large I’m not sure I am.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is available now for PC, and launches for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in December. Purchases are available here for PC.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
- Living world looks great.
- Lots of intertwining systems.
- Lots to explore.
- Learning new abilities through the synapse system is cool...
- ....repetition to learn new abilities is not so cool.
- Touchy controls.
- Absolutely no objectives or instructions.