Ever since Minecraft became popular, developers and publishers have been trying to reinvent the Survival genre. Games like Conan Exiles, Rust, and Terraria all use the crafting and discovery mechanics that have become popular.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey takes survival to its rawest state, as players become responsible for guiding a colony of unspecified hominids through the perils of prehistory. Players will need to keep themselves fed, comfortable, and on the constant hunt for the next big technological breakthrough.
Panache Digital Games takes a unique and ambitious route rarely seen since Spore from Electronic Arts in 2008. They have attempted to reimagine and gameify evolution and nature.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
Developer: Panache Digital Games
Publisher: Private Division
Platforms: Windows PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: August 27, 2019
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey doesn’t look or feel like an indie game, and it shouldn’t with former Ubisoft developer Patrice Désilets at the helm. The graphics aren’t intense, but they look professional. Textures are simple and there’s no fancy graphical effects. There’s nature, there’s useful objects, and there’s other creatures.
To the game’s credit, it doesn’t hold your hand with making creatures visible. Much like in real life, enemies will prowl, stalk, and use camouflage to their advantage. It’s easy to run through the jungle and not see the green snake lurking in the bush reach out and strike you. Or worse, you won’t hear the tiger running up behind you until it’s too late.
Some care was taken into making important objects distinct from the rest of the environment. It’s easy to pick out curiosities like dead trees that you can strip branches from, or edible leaves from the rest of the world.
There’s also more than just what you see, the player can use their primal intelligence, hearing, and smell to detect objects of interest, prey, and predators. Each method of detection changes the way the world is perceived until the character moves and breaks their concentration. But the graphics aren’t necessarily where this game tries to shine.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey considers itself a survival game, but it doesn’t feel like one. The game is meant to feel more like a simulation. When you start a new save, or “lineage” as the game calls it, you’re given the option for how much UI you want. Options range from being able to make full use of the game’s UI, to not being able to tell which rocks you can pick up and which you can’t.
The goal here is immersion, and it’s a praiseworthy endeavor. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is definitely the premiere game for playing a simulation of prehistory and the scientific method of hitting stuff together and seeing what happens. But that’s about as engaging as the gameplay gets.
There are enemies to fight, but fighting (and most interactions) take the form of quick time events. You hold a button, and let go of it as soon as you hear a small sound cue. That’s it.
Crafting: hold thing in one hand and rub your hand on it. If you can do something, you’ll get the sound cue and then peel or strip whatever you’re holding. If you have something in your other hand, then we’re making progress. Bashing rocks together to make rock tools, and you can use rock tools to sharpen sticks.
There’s one big problem though, while the game takes some pride in not holding your hand, it’s literally aimless at the start. It makes sense that these primative beasts would be clueless and slowly learn how to thrive; but it fails to be entertaining.
Around your little hominid camp you can already find two or three different kind of rocks and they each do something different. Even making a sharp stick is a laborious process.
First you need granite and obsidian, then you need to hit the obsidian with the granite (not the other way around, or you’ll destroy your granite). Now you have an obsidian scraper, now use the scraper on a stick and eventually you’ll have a sharpened stick.
What can you do with your sharpened stick? Very little at first. You’re given the privilege of taking your new weapon of war, finding a warthog and then if you’re lucky, using it once and lodging it in the pig’s flesh. If you’re not lucky, you get hit or dodge an attack and your simple ape brain cannot handle dodging and holding onto their stick at the same time. You have to unlock that capability.
On that note, what passes for the game’s tech tree is annoying at best. You have to unlock breakthroughs by doing whatever you can get your monkey hands on.
Not just that, you need to be carrying an infant with you so they can learn. Want to learn how to communicate better? Scream, groom, and mate at your fellow hominids and hope the game rewards you. If you’re lucky you’ll learn how to single out an individual among your group by “name”.
It might be good for immersion’s sake to have such rudimentary concepts locked behind the game’s tech tree, but it turns the game into more of a puzzle game than a survival one. Do the right moves, spam the right actions, and discover the right things; hopefully something will click. The game is a tedious exercise in trial-and-error.
The survival aspects come in the flavor of sleep, food, and water, which is simple enough. The settlement for the colony in most eras has an abundant food supply on hand. Berries, slugs, and leaves are all on the menu, and fresh water is usually found nearby.
Rather, these needs get in the way of the exploration. Necessity is the mother of invention, but without being given a meta objective by virtue of playing a game, the hominids can exist comfortably and without ambition where they began.
There’s little to say about the sound design. While a soundtrack is sold separately from the base game on at least the Steam storefront, none of the game’s music particularly stood out. However, attention to detail was given to the sounds of the environment. Players will typically hear a threat before they see it, and if playing with minimal UI, calling out to your clan mates is the best method to find your way back home.
When focusing on listening, players can identify and isolate sounds around them. Finding and avoiding prey and predators is what this function is normally used for. Even the low rumbling roar of a tiger prowling can be picked apart from the background noise of the forest by a hominid on alert.
There’s no cohesive story besides the one the player tells. The game takes place over generations and millennia. Achievements and breakthroughs are rewarded by boosts to your score.
This is reflected by the millions of years close to the present day your evolution has reached. Points are gained for births, discoveries, and exceptional achievements and lost for deaths.
Ultimately, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is artistic, ambitious, and gives a praiseworthy amount of detail to immersion and recreating the learning experience of early hominids. On those merits, it deserves a cursory look by those who are intrigued by recreating that stage of prehistory.
Those looking for a survival game ought to look elsewhere though. A great many games do survival and crafting better than Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, and the game is more like a puzzle game in how it works. But even in that case, it falls short of being a good puzzle game as clues aren’t given and experimentation and brute force are the only solutions to every puzzle.
Like Spore before it, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey falls victim to its own ambition and fails to be engaging. Too much focus is put on the exceptional amount of immersion, that none is spent on making the game fun.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was reviewed on Windows PC using a review code provided by Private Division. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.