Our ancestors had it really hard, and this game is no different.
Type: Single Player
Developer: Panache Digital Games
Publisher: Private Division
Release date: August 27, 2019
Before I get into the review, there is one thing I want to show you. The game starts out saying that you are about to embark on an adventure of your own making about the human odyssey. Then it briefly states you will use your body, senses, mind, and voice to guide you. You will gain strength in numbers and survive the elements to build a home with your fellow clan of apes.
Then this screen comes up. Yeah.
Don’t say the game never warns you. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is somewhat brutal from a playthrough point of view. However, a good chunk of that is not just because the game itself is hard, even though it seriously is tough as hell, but it is mostly because the game gives you only the slightest amount of guidance. This means you have to figure out the majority of the game on your own without any hand-holding or explanation. Hold on to that last word. Explanation is the biggest lacking feature of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey and while I can see the developer’s intent on making the survival aspect of the game intrinsically visceral down to the fact that players have to deduce every type of action, where even understanding how to craft is a mystery in and of itself, I think it’s a giant waste of time to force gamers to do so.
Unless you have oodles of spare time to kill, just look up a tip guide. Or, hell, I’ll throw a few tips in here for you. The fact that a good number of players will have to look up a guide just to play is annoying and I’d almost go so far as to say ludicrous, but then again I’ve played games where I had no clue what was going on and had to read a tip sheet to make heads or tails of things, and I rather liked those games. So, touché. Just consider playing this game to be much like wearing a blindfold and being told to set up a campsite in the jungle.
The disappointing thing is that I rather enjoy the game and it is really realistic even if the graphics seem a bit aged. It’s just that I have no clue what I am doing, what I am supposed to do, or what I need to change in order to get a better result. I’ve restarted five times now and I’ve yet to understand what I have to improve upon to get further ahead than I currently am. It’s this fundamental purposed impediment that hampers my enthusiasm. The game is fascinating, but at the same time almost maddening to play.
In a nutshell, you are an ape circa 10,000,000 years ago and you must get your clan of apes to survive in the African jungle. You’re not a caveman or a cavewoman, we’re talking an ape in every sense of the word, on the cusp of becoming human. Gender can be chosen or randomly assigned, which is a nice feature in my eyes.
The focus of the game is to develop your neuronal brain pathways by creating a bond with your children and discover pivotal developmental experiences, allowing further evolution of your clan and hopefully outpace the natural evolution of the human race. This is no easy task because, as I noted above, you are completely in the dark about how to do that.
There is the usual essential survival portion of the game like hunger, thirst, cold, and even dopamine. Fortunately, you can take care of hunger and thirst rather easily, as it’s not a huge portion of the game. Even the cold can be countered fairly easily within an hour or so of trying different things. Dopamine is required and replenished by carrying your babies on your back, and as my first tip, I highly advise doing this as much as possible if not for the entire game. Why? Without doing so, you are not developing your neuronal pathways and you’ll never be able to advance very far.
Your primary method of getting smarter will be to explore and investigate, which is done by using your instincts of hearing, smell, and intelligence. While it was not obvious to me at first, I later realized that using these senses is key to progression. So, make sure to take advantage of the system in place or you’ll never get far. It’s also one of the ways to get past fear, which is thankfully explained in the tutorial, as you must utilize those senses in a new area to get past the fear of the unknown. I saw a glowing orb each time I did that and just moved over to it and then the area became “safe” for travel and exploration. This doesn’t just apply to the entire area, as both above and ground levels need to have fear of the unknown addressed. Be prepared to do this over and over.
Exploration, as you would expect, brings its own perils. There are wild animals out to get you at nearly every corner and it won’t be long before you are in a tough spot. The tutorial guides you on how to dodge, but that only goes so far. There is also intimidation to simply scare off a predator, but it doesn’t work against the fiercer species looking for a meal. It was not until my fourth playthrough that I even realized I could craft tools because every time I tried to craft I’d just fail outright. It took me several attempts until I finally got the hang of it ( somewhat ) as it takes timing and precision to get started crafting and even longer to make a tool. Once you manage to get a tool, you have some more options other than just scare tactics to work with, so don’t think it is just a hide and run type of survival. Eventually, you’ll be able to move past the jungle into some new and exciting locales down the line too.
The food here is multi-fold as it’s not just a means of nourishment but also provides healing, protection from poison, and a few other things that are pretty crucial to survival. At some point, you’ll likely get food poisoned and then you have to address that with some trial and error. There are faster ways to get rid of it, but if you can’t figure those out you may simply be able to sleep it off. When you spot a new type of food, or any new object really, it is covered in what looks like a scary ball of evil shadows but it’s just mysterious fear that envelops it until you ascertain what it is and whether it is a food or even a material to craft with. Keep picking these items up to figure out what they do, especially since you need more food because it’s a limited resource. You also never know when you might find a healing item, something you definitely need to locate.
The best way to get your clan growing is to switch up your apes and get your mojo working. Here is where it can be quite frustrating. You may attempt to “Groom” your potential mate ( make sure it is the opposite sex if you want to procreate ), but having it go well requires exact timing or you get an elbow to the side. Luckily, I figured out how to get this going nearly every time. There is a certain rhythm to it. In any case, once you get that Groom mojo working well you get a little clap from your partner ( who doesn’t like a hand clap when copulating, right? ), and a white bar fills up informing you that the two apes now a couple. There is more do it than that, though. You still have to mate, and that requires another experience, but it’s a T for Teen game so don’t expect anything graphic involved. Once pregnant, you can finally get some babies going, which is seriously needed if you want the clan to get bigger.
Speaking of that, there is a sort of skill wheel involved in the game broken up into Evolution, Generation, and Neuronal. Neuronal was pretty straightforward with skill sets to unlock for progression and newly learned abilities like Motricity. The Generation section was a bit more mysterious to me as all I could understand was that there are Reinforcement points to earn where you can lock the knowledge for the next generation and there was a button to push to skip a generation. I did that a few times, with the first time being a total loss because I didn’t have enough babies and 15 years into the future went by with the whole clan dead except a grandpa, one grown up baby and myself. I honestly can’t tell if I am doing things correctly yet, so any comment I make on this is a complete guess. Suffice it to say, make sure you have a ton of babies before doing this or you will kill off the whole clan. The Evolution section leaves me in the dark, I have no idea what it is for. I only see how many people have died, how many were born, and some mysterious percentage of feats.
I feel that here is where the game stalls because the sense of progression is stymied by the enormously time-intensive and tough difficulty curve. Yes, you can unlock new abilities and stats, and a few of them are outright backbones of the game system, but since the game is slow I just felt like I was whittling my time away doing the same things over and over again. It’s the constant repetition that nearly kills the game. That is until something new comes along and then you’re suddenly interested in the game again. Yet, that doesn’t happen for ages and then you are left wondering if anything new will come along again. Also, without any multiplayer involved, the solo survival experience is harder to prevent the rigors of the game from becoming pure tedium.
I think I can compare it to learning a new instrument. At first, it’s off-putting because you try like hell and often simply stink compared to what you had envisioned in your mind about being able to do. That’s Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. It’s not going to come easy and you’ll be failing like crazy for several playthroughs, ultimately coming back to start over again and try things differently. The question is whether the constant failure can be overcome by the lure of the game time after time or if the game just becomes a chore the longer you play and you drop it like those piano lessons you never cared for. Either you keep at it until you get better, or you just lose interest because of the repeated failures and high difficulty. That’s a hell of a gamble for the devs if you ask me and I’m not sure whether it will really pay off in the end or not.
I’ve got some mixed emotions about Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. Is it a bad game? Well, no it is not. It’s well planned out with some serious thought behind the systems in place. Is it a tedious and somewhat boring game? Yes, it certainly is. Will you enjoy playing it? That’s up for debate and entirely hinges on your level of patience and how much you enjoy apes in the jungle. Without a doubt, it is the most user-unfriendly game I’ve ever played and that’s saying quite a bit. However, there are very careful game structures at play that make it a challenge and intriguing at the same time. Think of it as a roguelite where you will die multiple times and have to start all over from the very beginning with nothing carried over. Yes, nothing carries over when you fail and start over.
Here is the thing, even though I felt it was repetitive and mind-numbingly laborious, once I got the hang of things I found myself playing for hours at a time and wanting to give it another go before it was time to call it quits. Could I play this for weeks on end? Nope, but I can see leaving this installed and playing it from time to time until I finally get further ahead. I’ve got tool creation down, though I still can’t figure out a few things like lifting rocks or attacking tigers with a pointy stick, but I want to give those a try until I succeed. It’s a very tough survival game and it’s not quite as fun without any multiplayer involved, but I can see this getting more interesting if it ever does. Should you buy it at full price? I say wait for a decent sale and only if you feel like you are in the mood in for several hours of punishment.