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Review: Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Shows Players an Obtuse Age

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy, and that’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in the game.

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
Photo: Private Division

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy. That’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. From a design perspective, the first title from the Montreal-based Panache Digital Games brilliantly shows you firsthand, again and again, just how frustrating, difficult, and deadly life was for our hominid brethren some 10 million years ago in Africa. But everything that was frustrating, difficult, and deadly back then is what drags down the gameplay, which so rigidly commits to unevolved mechanics that Ancestors is often just a slog to experience.

Even on the easiest difficulty setting, death is permanent, and you can’t create multiple save slots. This feels especially punishing given how reliant the game is on trial and error, and how frequently those errors lead to death. In the game’s early hours, as you attempt to navigate your hominid from a third-person perspective through the perilous jungle, you’re likely to freeze during a chilling rain, bleed out after a saber-tooth tiger or eagle attack, starve, or, most embarrassingly, die of thirst or exhaustion because Ancestors doesn’t tell you how to drink water or sleep. This is a game that insists on obfuscation, and it isn’t shy about bragging about it. “We won’t help you much,” it declares in the introduction to its campaign.

Over time, you’ll come to realize that you can use your senses—sight, sound, and smell—to scan for objects, animals, and foods. This scanning of the game’s surroundings allows the player to separate things into two categories—things you’ve seen before, and things you haven’t—and the meat of the game is converting the latter into the former. And as Ancestors progress, players will also need to alter objects, either making them into tools that can then be combined with other items or into Minecraft-like stacks that can then be built on.

These initial discoveries can be exhilarating, but they’re also kind of arbitrary. If you time an alteration properly, you can strip the leaves off a frond, leaving you the stem, which you can use to interact with a beehive. But that’s the only tool you can use to gather honey; you can’t just plunge your hand into a hive, beestings be damned, or use a stick, even though it looks identical to a stem. Elsewhere, you can build a sleeping area by stacking leaves on top of one another, but this action isn’t made available to you until you’ve stacked five leaves in a pile.

When you successfully groom a fellow hominid, rhythmically plucking parasites out of its fur, a meter tells you that you’re bonding with it. But no such indication is given for stacking objects, or banging rocks together, which may leave you to maddeningly wonder if you just need to try something a sixth time, or maybe a seventh, or if Ancestors secretly requires you to sharpen that stick with a different tool. The game’s simple iconography goads you, suggesting that there’s another use for, say, a coconut, but damned if the folks at Panache Digital are going to hint at what you’re doing wrong each time you try to open it.

All of these frustrating elements are at least justifiable given the specific circumstances that Ancestors is emulating. (There were definitely no walkthroughs 10 million years ago.) But the game also artificially gates players, punishing you for knowing too much. There are no shortcuts for teaching your hominid things that you’ve already learned in a failed campaign, and even when you progress in the game by breeding children and choosing to advancing to the next generation, you can’t pass on all of your hard-won genetic abilities. You’ll have to relearn things the long way, such as scanning objects one by one until you’re at last able to unlock Form Recognition, which lets you identify multiple objects at once. Since you need to advance generations in order to bank your evolutionary experience, it feels as if Ancestors is constantly punishing your progression, pushing you back to the basic hook of looking, smelling, and hearing things in the environment and scanning every object.

What feels novel for a few hours of your first playthrough grows onerous with each new generation. You may not need to spend millions of years in real-time evolving your ancestors, but that doesn’t make Ancestors feel any less like an era’s worth of repetition.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tara Bruno PR.

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