If Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is proof of anything, it's that life is better with a bit of evolution behind it. Sure, 2019 has its problems, but at least I'm not crawling through a swamp on broken limbs, guts in a mess because of some ill-thought-out snacking on a mushroom, and bleeding heavily from warthog inflicted wounds. Is this the most fun I've ever had in a game? No.
The idea is fascinating, taking a simple, chimpanzee-like primate called a hominid and - through your actions in a lush jungle setting – shaping their evolution as they learn skills like tool use and trying to ensure the survival of generations of your family clan with those skills. Your chosen ape has to manage basic survival requirements like water, food, and sleep, as well as avoiding threats like poisonous snakes or predators. It's harder than it sounds. I'd like to say no hominoids were harmed in the making of this review, but that would be a lie. They bled to death, starved, fell from treetops, got eaten by snakes, eagles, giant panthers, and poisoned.
Bar a few early prompts to get you started, the game is very hands-off. You're not going to get some great philosophical narrative or any tutorials beyond the basics, and the UI is minimal. You'll get icons to show when you're bleeding, or poisoned, or have broken bones, but there's no map, no quests to tick off. It's a giant sandbox, and the only goal is to keep your clan going for as many generations as possible. It's easier said than done, at the beginning your hominids are so basic they're still getting around on all fours and can't even carry more than one object at a time. Quickly though, with every action - moving around, grooming a friend, inspecting a handful of berries - you're maturing different parts of your brain. As new neurons mature you can evolve them, unlocking new skills, like walking on two legs, or dodging enemy attacks, or communicating with your clan. This is all done with an admittedly beautiful skill tree modelled after a brain.
What learning looks like in practice is a lot of trial and error. Eating things to see if you can metabolize them, and dealing with a stomach ache if you can't. A dead branch can be altered to make a stick, a horsetail plant can be altered to make a poultice that heals cuts. These alterations and discoveries get more complicated as your neuronal map grows, allowing you to use tools to gather honey or defend yourself from the many predators that lurk amidst the greenery. A lot of actions, like stripping the husk away from coconut then smashing it open or grooming a hairy buddy, rely on audio queues, requiring you to let go of the right bumper at just the right moment.
When experimenting pays off it's satisfying when it doesn't, it's infuriating. The more you play, the quicker you lose patience with repeating the same actions, going through the motions of eating, drinking and finding freshwater, only to be felled by a bad mushroom. Illness or sickness or panic are all communicated with a strange choice of visual effects that will either induce a migraine or at best, have you googling cataract symptoms between play sessions.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
When you're not worrying about whether or not that python egg is going to give you a dicky tummy, you're probably being eaten. The map in full of predators. Warthogs, snakes, crocodiles, big cats, eagles, are literally tripping over each other. There's so many, that a lot of the time you won't have even spotted them before they turn on each other - one big cat clawing at another in a cutscene - and you're awarded with an achievement for making it happen. Still, that strange theatrical interruption is preferable to dealing with them yourself.
It's not that the fact that there are predators is unreasonable, but the gameplay mechanic put in place when you face one is rage-quit levels of vexing. Every time a predator lunges at you it triggers a drawn-out, slow-motion effect that breaks any sense of danger or tension, and actually makes it hard to react. Whether you're trying to dodge or counter attack, the camera switches and you'll find yourself turned around, attempts to make a run for the nearest tree will see you pulled back into the same animation over and over. If you're with your clan and have evolved enough you can intimidate the predators, and have them run, but who wants to hang out with their whole family all the time?
Hominoid horror story
At one point a glitch in the game meant my entire clan lived in a constant state of anxiety, as if a predator was near. I mean, same, but it doomed them. The game constantly wanted my ape, any ape I tried, to intimidate this ghost predator, and blocked options to groom other clan members - no grooming, no mating, no new babies - or to evolve. Again and again, I sent clan members out into the wild to try and shake the constant state of panic, again and again, they died. It ended with one, greying hominoid, searching for a baby that seemed to be endlessly crying but impossible to pinpoint. In the end, bleeding, I let the monkey take what I knew was a fatal dive off a waterfall and - twist- was transported into the body of the last surviving member of my clan. The helpless baby I had heard crying. Worst Pixar movie ever.
Underneath all the weird visual effects and frustrating warthog attacks is a fascinating idea, an exploration of social and physical mechanics that feels like a galaxy brain version of leveling up in other RPGs. For some people, that idea will survive the endless cycle of death and repetition, for me any joy to be had in exploring and discovering lost its flavor like chewed up African Land Snail on the third or fourth clan. Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a brilliant tech demo for an RPG system that has the potential to revolutionize the way we progress our characters in games, I just wish it there had been a little less proof of concept and a little more fun.