Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review

I started Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey as a baby pre-human (baby ape, basically), that through a small series of misfortunes got separated from it’s tribe. As I work my way back to them, there are small teachable moments that as I understand it, weren’t there at launch on the PC. This tutorial addresses the gripes earlier reviewers had, that the game was obtuse, that players were forced to learn a new gameplay paradigm without the benefit of understanding what to do.

Winding my way back, I am taught the basics of movement and of interacting with the environment. The short trip threw a lot of information at me. Ancestors is a complicated game, with many mechanics that aren’t intuitive because they’re so innovative and the concepts so cerebral. There’s honest to goodness smelling. That must’ve been insanely difficult to conceptualize and code, and the developers, Panache Digital Games, Inc., nailed it. Along with experiencing sound, the way exploration and threat perception is handled is done extremely well. It’s intuitive and visceral.

I can imagine you’re thinking, “If it’s that easy to pick up, why was everyone so salty before the tutorial was added?”. Well, that’s the rub. The complexity picks up after that, with more obtuse and weighty concepts getting introduced very rapidly. It’s a mini-crash course in anthropology, neurology, and archaeology all rolled into one. Truthfully, that’s not a show, err, game stopper, except that coupled with the heady material of the lessons was a nonsensical decision to make it a one-and-done. You get instructed once via a pop-up, and that’s it. There isn’t any way to reference the material again. No log, no journal, no guide.

Honestly, that’s my only real gripe with the game. Without a way to learn (me, not my pre-human) the way most people absorb information, through reading and repetition, I felt crippled, lost. I totally get the concept that our ancestors had to learn the hard way, and I respect the developer’s call to build the game that way, but to me it removed the one thing that I game for, which is to have fun and to be entertained.

Not to say the experience was miserable, it just wasn’t satisfying the way I’m accustomed to. There are very specific criteria to progressing through the game, wickets that the character has to pass though. I honestly couldn’t remember them exactly, though I did recall the mention of passing knowledge down to the next generation through example.

What I did with my time: Groomed a lot of dudes. That’s how my female pre-human was supposed to attract a mate. I guess I don’t give good groom because none of the males chose to couple with me. I also picked and ate some fruit. Then I collected some fern-like plants, gathering enough to make a nest-bed, so I took a nap. In addition I kept a careful watch for predators and scouted for things around the home site.

After some time, about an hour in, I felt emboldened to venture further from camp. There are indicators that mark points of interest, labeled with question marks. I spied a likely target and headed towards it. I loped away and for some reason two others tagged along behind me, which sucked for them because I was lost immediately. Every jungle tree looked the same but the two following me never questioned me as to where the heck I was going. They didn’t even hesitate to trail me into some swampy water until the one in back got eaten by an alligator.

We ran and didn’t stop until the swamp was way into our rearview. I paused next to a giant tree to search for new threats and spotted a giant mamba off to the side of us. The mamba bit my other follower, and may have eaten him too, but I couldn’t say because I ran away again. 

The rest of my time with Ancestors was spent hiding at the top of a tall tree. I didn’t know what else to do, I only knew that I didn’t want to restart and reinvest all of that time again.

Conclusion

Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an ambitious game. It’s beautiful, deep, and compelling but suffers from a lack of clear direction on how to navigate and appreciate everything that it contains. There hasn’t been a game quite like it before, which unfortunately doesn’t work in Ancestors favor because more time is spent figuring out it’s mechanics than actually enjoying it.

This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.
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Good
  • It’s gorgeous and immersive. You’ll feel like a pre-human.
  • Senses of smell and hearing are innovative and well-implemented.
Bad
  • No learning curve. Until/if you get the game mechanics locked down, it’s work
  • Not so much a game as it is a simulation, more educational than entertaining. Not 100% sure that this is a “bad”, but for me it teetered over onto the wrong side of the fun-fence.
7.3
Good
Gameplay - 6
Graphics - 9
Audio - 9
Longevity - 5
Written by
I was gaming way before it was cool or accepted, when games were sold in ziplock bags and gaming clues required a letter and a SASE to the actual developer. I’m not saying that like it’s a credential or an odd badge of honor, but as a statement that video games can be fun and engaging independent of graphics, the number of player choices allowed, or game mechanics. I felt the same sense of joy and exhilaration with text-based games of yore as I do playing the most advanced games of today.

1 Comment

  1. I had been looking forward to this for a while. I’ll have some time in January to give it a try.

    Reply

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