Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey

I do like to back an underdog. Many of the best and most interesting games available come not from your big AAA publishers but from the smaller, low scale development teams. Those free to do something different, like TheUltraUltra’s Echo or Tequila Work’s The Sexy Brutale. Ancestors is a download only game from Panache Digital Games of similar ilk. Ancestors is the brain child of the man behind the first Prince of Persia reboot, Sands of Time, and the first three Assassin’s Creed games.

On paper the idea for Ancestors is incredibly intriguing. Exactly the type of low key game I try going out my way to experience. We start 10,000,000 years ago when a group of Ape ancestors have descended from the tree’s in sub-Saharan Africa. Our task is to guide the species through millions of years of evolution and set them on the path to Manhood. The process necessarily slow going as new skills are learned, genetic memory is implanted, and birth mutations alter our eventual fate.

Straight out the gate the games initial problem is one of explanation. With all tutorial options dialled up to the max the game seems highly reluctant to give up its secrets. The entire first hour of gameplay spent head scratching not working out what is going on. My very first Ape-Ancestor fell to his death from a great height. The game moved immediately to the nearby Baby-Ape-Ancestor whose task it became to complete the mission back to the Ape-Ancestor tribe. Alas every movement of Baby-Ape-Ancestor flashed up an annoying HUD warning screaming at me to “get back on task”!?! Nothing for it but to delete the game save and restart from scratch.

Indeed I did end up restarting a few times as I slowly got to grips with the games mechanics and what is going on. And somehow that wasn’t totally a bad thing. The biggest lesson being to take things slowly. Don’t expect evolution to happen in a day. I found myself worrying more about the size and members of my clan than exploring the wider world were too many things wanted to kill them. And stock pilling. Foraging and stock pilling become the early order of the day.

In one early game I got in to trouble when all male members were killed. No problem I thought. Lets go for some evolution. The babies will grow up, the troupe will grow, I’ll have a new base to progress from. Alas evolution winds the clock forward without altering the group. I returned to the action with the exact same members we’d left off with a few thousand years earlier, and still no adult males. Similarly a pregnancy allows you to jump forward 15 months. But somehow I was still on year 1 and even after two such pregnancies none of the other babies had matured.

It took some searching and reading of Internet guides before things started making some semblance of sense and started settling down. In broad strokes there are four ways of progressing time. Sleeping for hourly/daily progression. Pregnancy to jump forward 15 months. Generation switch moves forward 15 years. And, finally, Evolution takes the clan forward by an indeterminate thousands of years. General gameplay is exploration and survival based with a given current goal (eg. befriend outsider, scare off animals, find landmark, etc). The game should be played as one of the grey tribe elders with a baby clinging to your back at all times. When you have killed of all the elders it is time to progress the game to the next generation – adults becoming elders, babies becoming adults. The first task in each new generation, before continuing the general survival/exploration gameplay, is to create a whole new generation of babies.

One thing that is constantly (consistently) frustrating is the controls. You keep trying to convince yourself that things will get better by design as you unlock and fix more neurons but despite increased motor control it never seems the case. The game is centred around a sub-Saharan forest with lots of necessary tree climbing. Why then does it seem utterly impossible to judge depth/direction and leap between branches? This is were more polished games add in those often unseen player aids by having you make jumps so long as you are generally close enough. Not so here, leaps to your 100ft deaths are far too common. Also basic direction control is broken. Climbing up and not being able to climb down, or move across. Lots of fighting with the camera before movement registers correctly in some instances.

This is a game that just wants to fight the player at ever turn. Which is a shame because barely scratch beneath the surface and you find something that could be very special indeed, a game just trying to get out despite itself. The whole thing just lacks that little extra polish. That last 6 months of development. It feels like time or money (or both) left the developers in a position of just not being able to cross the line. Ultimately if feels like they dumped what they had on the world and couldn’t wait to run away.