It’s like Spore but worse.
Being greeted by the PS3-era textures and effects of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey didn’t put me off one bit. I’ve always been a gameplay-over-graphics kind of guy. Ever since it was unveiled at E3 2018, I’ve been excited to see if Ancestors could pull off what Spore couldn’t.
Unfortunately, Ancestors feels like it’s trying to be more of an educational simulator rather than an enjoyable video game. You’re given the freedom to do and discover whatever you want but none of it feels all that rewarding.
The main premise of Ancestors can be summed in one line: Evolve beyond dumb monkeys.
You start the game as a baby hominid (prehistoric human being) who has to find his way to your clan’s settlement after your mother is killed by a gigantic prehistoric bird. From the get-go, you’re introduced to the game’s purposely vague tutorials which constantly feels like a way for the developers to boast “Look how little hand-holding our game has!”
It’s one thing to give players the freedom to learn things themselves and it’s another to give poor instructions that waste the players time trying to figure out core mechanics. Almost nothing is explained to the players (a good thing) but whenever there is an explanation, it doesn’t tell much.
It took me at least 3 hours just to completely understand how the stamina and health bars work in this game. In fact, most basic mechanics took me around an hour or two to figure out.
Evolving your species, the game’s main objective, took me two playthroughs to figure out.
It also doesn’t help that the game makes you grind for EXP (called neurotic points or something in this game) for an hour or so every time you fast forward to the next generation of your clan. There’s a limited amount of skills that you can pass down to your babies so everything else has to be relearned.
This includes useful skills like being able to perceive objects and creatures at a further distance and being able to drop objects while you’re moving (if you don’t learn this skill, you can only drop them while staying still). It feels tedious and I’m tempted to quit the game every time I evolve.
To be fair, it succeeds in really making you experience what it felt like for our ape-ancestors to grow brain cells. However, you are not rewarded with anything substantial for your efforts.
But Because You Must!
Throughout my 15+ hours with the game, there has ever only been one objective given to me and that is to evolve faster than what science has recorded, to see if I could create an alternative history where our ancestors biologically progress faster than usual.
In a way, the game structures itself similar to other freeform games like The Sims and Kenshi where there’s no real objective aside from doing what’s needed to survive and creating your own storyline.
Sometimes Ancestors gives me a glimpse of how brilliant it can be. After all my hominids in my first playthrough died, I decided to approach the game more systematically. Beginning my second playthrough, I took time to fully scan my settlement’s surroundings using my perception and smelling sense.
I then discovered that there was actually a beehive located above the rock formation that my clan used as shelter from the rain. In my attempt to get honey using only my hands, I was stung multiple times and given no prompt to harvest any honey. I then came back with a wooden stick and voila, honey-on-a-stick!
I honestly felt a bit smart being able to teach my ancestors how to properly harvest honey from a beehive.
That’s where the fun stops. All I get is a new food source. The game tells me that my apes now have developed a new level of metabolism thanks to eating honey but that’s it. My fellow clans-ape don’t even attempt to mimic me by harvesting the honey themselves. I even asked them to follow me and watch me do it, and… nothing. They just sit there scratching their prehistoric behinds.
Most of the game’s discoveries feel like this. There’s a short moment of eureka that’s proceeded by a very depressing sense of “Okay, what now?”
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t care too much about graphics in video games. It’s good if they look pretty but what matters is that the game must be fun. The bottom line is that Ancestors isn’t all that fun and it doesn’t look all that good either.
Playing the game on PC in the highest settings, I was hoping for it to look better than the PS4 gameplay footage I’ve seen. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really tell the difference between the two. Both had dated textures and almost non-existent lighting effects.
Our primary characters, the hominids, look like they’re just movie actors wearing monkey suits. The fur on their body never really looks natural and their expressions never really convey anything noteworthy even during significant moments like killing a wild boar for the first time or even after the birth of a new child.
In the sound department, Ancestors does a decent job of making you feel like you’re dropped into a world where everything is out to make you extinct. Exploring the African jungle, you’ll hear sabre-toothed tigers growling, giant snakes hissing, and the sound of water flowing down a nearby river.
There’s some music in the game too but nothing quite memorable. However, I’ll admit that I enjoyed how almost every music track becomes distorted whenever my character was feeling unwell due to metabolic indigestion or food poisoning. It’s pretty funny sometimes.
Will You Guide Our Ancestors?
At full price, I wouldn’t recommend this game to anybody except people who truly love the idea of playing as prehistoric human beings trying to discover fire for the first time in the most tedious of ways.
It’s obvious that Ancestors is a project made with a lot of passion and ambition. Personally, I found that those elements weren’t properly translated into video game mechanics that actually felt fun or gratifying enough.
If you’re looking for a game that gives you the freedom to create your own storyline and make it feel a bit more meaningful, give Kenshi a try or just replay your favourite Sims game.
- Sometimes makes you feel smart.
- Gives you a lot of freedom to chart your own course in history.
- Discovery and evolution aren’t rewarding.
- Tedious grind after each evolution.
- Poorly-implemented tutorials.
FINAL SCORE: 40/100
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was reviewed on PC.