What is it? A survival RPG set 10 million years ago
Expect to pay: $40/£32.99
Developer: Panache Digital Games
Publisher: Private Division
Reviewed on: Intel i5-6600K, GTX 980, 8 GB RAM
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
The aroused moaning of the prehistoric ape I'm trying to bang is getting to be a bit much. She's really into this backrub I'm giving her, but I'm having trouble feeling the mood myself. We're squatting in the freezing rain, my leg is broken, I have an orphaned toddler clinging to my back, and another member of my clan is enthusiastically picking his nose in my sightline. It's not even a tiny bit romantic, but hey—I'm trying to save our species.
Listening to an ape get horny as I rub her hairy back isn't the only thing I'm not keen on in third-person survival game Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. It begins 10 million years in the past with you controlling the leader of a small clan of hominids—the distant precursors to human beings that eventually evolved, invented computers, developed games about ancient hominids, and wrote reviews about them. And like evolution itself, Ancestors is slow, often uneventful, and a frequently frustrating struggle.
An average day in Ancestors is spent exploring the forests, swamps, and savannas of Africa, using your senses to examine your surroundings. But the novelty of detecting something by sound or scent wears off almost immediately due to repetition and awkward controls. When I want to use my senses to investigate something, I need to stop moving completely. Then I need to make sure I'm not close to any rock, stick, plant, or food item or I'll get the prompt to interact with that item instead of the prompts to use my senses. So there's a lot of moving and stopping, then shuffling around because I stopped too close to something else. It's awkward instead of instinctive, which isn't great for a game about being a creature of instinct. Even just trying to target another hominid for an interaction is a fiddly annoyance, like the endless backrubs I need to perform in hopes of convincing one to mate with me.
There's naturally lots of climbing and jumping around on the cliffs and trees, which can be exhilarating when making long leaps to snag vines and branches, but much less fun when you miss. There's no targeting here—it's a leap of faith that you'll connect with the spot you're aiming for, and most expeditions wind up with me plummeting to the ground at least once and shattering my leg. The finer movements of my hominid are even more difficult, like trying to transition from a vertical tree trunk to a horizontal branch, which takes a lot of slow maneuvering, re-adjusting, and accidentally climbing up when I mean to climb down.
Discovery itself, though, can be satisfying. Early on I found another hominid, a stranger to my clan, up in a tree, holding his wrist as if in pain. Having broken my leg a half-dozen times by this point, I knew there was a type of plant that provided a buff for bone strength, so I brought him a handful of it and he was grateful enough to join my clan. There's also a little thrill when learning how to use tools, like stripping a branch into a spear or using a rock to smash open a cacao pod to drink its pulp. Discovery activates your ape's neurons and unlocks new skills, but progress is achingly slow and only comes from performing the same types of actions repeatedly and hoping it will eventually lead to advancement.
Sticks and stones
The African wilderness is filled with threats from wild boars to giant snakes to massive crocodiles, but combat in Ancestors is a big sloppy mess. My greatest early achievement was my first fight with a rampaging machairodontinae (a big angry cat). But it was ruined by a tutorial box that partially obscured the fight it was trying to teach me to win, a notification that I'd discovered how to use a stick as a weapon (duh!), and another notification that I'd killed the cat (as I was still killing it), not to mention the terrible cinematic camera angle of what should have been a triumphant event. You can turn tutorials off, but it's hard to know when you've learned enough about Ancestors to safely do so.
If you survive and progress long enough, you can advance time by a single generation or by hundreds of thousands of years at once, and continue playing with the successors of your lineage. Your clan's experiences and knowledge are matched against science's estimation of the real thing when you make an evolutionary leap, which is genuinely interesting. I was pretty stoked that my first clan, the Chunky Monkeys, were evolving faster than hominids actually did, mainly because I'd figured out how to expertly bash things with chunks of obsidian earlier than my real-life ancestors did.
Alas, the lineage of the Chunky Monkeys were wiped out about million years later after losing a few fights and running out of fertile females, and my next two clans didn't fare much better. Starting Ancestors over again from the beginning is a major drag, having to re-discover every leaf and plant I've already long since grown tired of gathering, sniffing, and tasting—not to mention repeating all those endless, ulterior backrubs. I haven't completed Ancestors yet, but I've definitely had enough of it.