“…the experience is one of the most profoundly immersive you will ever enjoy in a video game.”
It is rare in the modern video game market that a title emerges which is truly unique and different, but Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is just that. We all know how human beings came to be, through millions of years of cognitive experiences and genetic adaptations. Now, we are able to play it. Developed by Panache Digital Games, formed of some of the team behind the creation of Assassin’s Creed, and published by Private Division, Ancestors allows players to embark on their own grand journey of discovery and evolution.
In Ancestors, you control generations upon generations of apes, starting ten million years ago on the continent now known as Africa. The rainforest environment in which you emerge is full of dangers to be avoided and mysteries to be solved, and your first experience in the game introduces some of these. Hearing the calls of a frightened baby in the distance, the game teaches you to run before you can walk. Quickly showcasing its heritage in the Assassin’s Creed saga, you must make use of your senses and agility to traverse the treeline and forest floor to find the scared child and bring it back to the safety of your growing tribe. The mechanics of negotiating these environments feel akin to the earlier Assassin’s Creed games; highly effective but with all of the imperfections which were yet to be worked out. Nevertheless, once you get your head around what works and what doesn’t, moving around the game world becomes as exciting as it is a pleasure.
It becomes apparent early on that the treeline is the safest way to travel, with the other inhabitants of the forest largely dwelling on the ground. Snakes, warthogs and worse await if you delve too deep into the environment alone, and in the early game, these creatures are a grave threat to your life. As you progress in your cognitive ability down the line, it becomes possible to intimidate and defend yourself against such threats, but at this stage, you still have much to learn. Learning is at the very core of Ancestors, from discovering new resources and ways to use them to develop immunities to ailments, fears and indeed the dangers of the world around you. Equally important as learning for yourself is choosing which experiences, skills and knowledge to pass on to future generations; slowly but surely working towards the inevitable future of the species which is, ironically, you, the player. Experiences equal skills and skills equal further options for exploration and expansion.
The survival of your clan depends on its growth, adaption and the conquering of its fears. The former of these elements, growth, begins with the safe return of the aforementioned child; and later the addition of further individuals to your group. As they say in Planet of the Apes, “apes together, strong”. This can be achieved through finding other lost and frightened souls, or through mating with other members of your own clan. As you do so, you can pass on your genetically learned skills through the in-game skills trees, eventually leading to the transformation of your species into humanity. These skill trees are cleverly put together, with skills being revealed through knowledge and experiences and gained through survival and exploration of what you have seen and learned. Overwhelming fear can, for example, be a catalyst for overcoming such fears in the future. It is something somewhat akin to the evolutions once seen in Spore, but far more advanced, specific and grounded in the real world.
The greatest joy in Ancestors, however, is none of these mechanics or clever workings, but rather the exploration which you embark on yourself. The game offers you minimal help when it comes to discovery and learning, providing you with basic controls and the means to master your senses, but handing over the responsibility of how you use these skills to you. You can see or smell food, for example, but understanding what can and/or should be eaten and the benefits and nutrition provided can only be ascertained through obtaining, manipulating and consuming the food yourself. The same goes for resources such as rocks or sticks, which when properly manipulated can be transformed into useful tools, but the game will give you no hints as to what will and won’t work. This trial and error style of gameplay might frustrate some players, but for those willing to commit the time and effort to it the experience is one of the most profoundly immersive you will ever enjoy in a video game.
The design elements of the game are also well worthy of mention. The rainforest landscape is carefully designed and impressively detailed; providing a realistic landscape to play within as well as a highly practical one. Vines hanging from trees are as atmospheric as they are useful to getting around, and beautiful waterfalls make for an idyllic backdrop as well as offering a crucial resource for survival and an audio queue for finding your way home. Everything about the way the game is put together is easy on the eye and purposeful for gameplay; a perfected combination and an inspired world-building choice. Perhaps even more impressive than the look, feel and sounds of the world around you, however, are the animations of the apes themselves. The animations for movements, quirks of personality and reactions to anything from revelations to fears are outstanding; you could easily believe that Andy Serkis (Planet of the Apes) himself had been brought on board to provide his input. This only makes the immersion of the game more impressive still and rounds out a package of everything looking, frankly, amazing.
Ancestors is a game that takes a long time to play and progress in, but the time commitment is a small cost for the experience which the game offers. It is detailed and immersive; and a gaming experience like none I have ever played before. They say that life is all about the journey rather than the destination. You enter this game already knowing the latter, and the journey is nothing short of a pleasure. This is a truly unique game with a creative and interesting style; one which is well worth spending your pocket money to play.
- Initial release date: 27 August 2019
- Developer: Panache Digital Games
- Engine: Unreal Engine
- Designer: Patrice Désilets
- Publisher: Private Division
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows