Have you ever dreamed of experiencing the slow, tedious history of humankind? Probably not, but Patrice Desilets, the man often credited with the creation of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, did. Patrice and his new development studio graced the world with a reveal trailer for Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey at the tail end of 2018 and it’s fair to say that my interest was piqued. It promised an open-world adventure that spanned ten million years. Nearly a year later that’s just what we got, but maybe we shouldn’t have.
The game opens with a bang, your parent has just been killed by a giant bird and you take the reigns of the child whose goal is to hide and survive, or make your way back to the rest of your tribe. Immediately the tediousness of the game becomes apparent. I slowly made my way back to the tribe at a snail’s pace.
Once there I was shifted into the body of an adult ape with the child now strapped to my back. I didn’t know what to do, my only goal was to make a sleeping spot. There were no instructions offered. No crafting menu, no prompts that told me what I should use to build the sleeping spot.
This is where the Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey’s brutal, tedious cycle of exploration and experimentation begins to rear its ugly head. The game’s mechanics for finding useable items and places are all presented as your traditional senses such as sight and sound but are only usable while standing completely still. It’s annoying and jarring gameplay to stop every few moments to sit and hold a button to try and find an item you’re looking for.
When you first start Ancestors, your ape knows nothing and every item is just a question mark in a triangle. I spent a few minutes walking around trying to find the particular leaves that went into a sleeping spot. I grew annoyed with the ape’s inability to move any faster than a crawling infant so I decided that I would try swinging from tree to tree. That was a mistake.
I tried to jump to a group of vines that should have been well within jumping range, but instead my ape more or less just fell from the top of a tree to the ground forty feet below breaking a leg. Now I was limping along even slower. Eventually, I found the right leaves and began to pull them off one by one and pile them up, since at this point my ape could only hold items in one hand. After I’d piled enough up I was able to craft the spot. Next, I was prompted to sleep and was then introduced to the game’s version of leveling up: the evolution menu.
In the evolution menu, you can choose new abilities to learn provided that you’ve used the previous ability enough and you have the neuron points to purchase it. Neurons are gained by exploring and moving while having a baby attached to you. You’re also given the option to pass on to another generation which ages any babies in the tribe to adulthood and locks in three of the evolutions that the current generation has gained.
Next, I was told to partner with another monkey and have a baby. This time I was given some guidance, I had to groom another ape to become its partner. After grooming for some time with no progress I noticed a sound that happened just moments after beginning the grooming session. This is when I realized that I had to let go of the button as the sound played.
I was hopeful that I would only have to do that while grooming, but that wasn’t the case. Just about everything aside from picking things up uses the same timing-based interaction system. Sharpening sticks, stripping leaves, banging rocks together and dodging predators all use the same system. It makes every interaction a quick time event. If you miss the timing you destroy the item your working on and have to slog through the jungle to find another one.
It’s a poor system that takes away from everything Anestors could be. After I had reproduced I was given a new prompt to find a landmark, again with no guidance. This is the core of the gameplay, carry a baby around while finding landmarks or smacking sticks together to gain neurons, spend the neurons on evolutions, have a baby.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a game that wanted to be so much but in that desire ended up being so little. A repetitive cycle of slowly walking around the jungle avoiding predators while visiting landmarks that all look the same and cranking out babies that know just a little bit more than their parents. It’s a game that achieved nothing but mediocracy despite its legendary pedigree.
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