Welcome to This Is Not A Review. In these articles we discuss general impressions, ideas and thoughts on any given game, but as the title implies, it’s not a review. Instead, it’s an exercise in offering a quick recommendation (or dismissal) after spending enough time to grasp the ideas and gameplay of a thing without necessarily playing it from A to Z.
The subject of this installment: Ancestors: the Humankind Odyssey, available on PS4, Xbox One and PC, developed by Panache Digital and published by Private Division.
As a game reviewer, there are a few things that make me sadder than seeing a great idea fall short in execution, but Ancestors: the Humankind Odyssey falls squarely into that bucket.
This experimental third-person title from Patrice Désilets (Assassin’s Creed series, Prince of Persia, 2003) starts off with an incredibly interesting premise — the player is in charge of a tribe of primitive ape-like human ancestors and must help them survive and evolve. Great concept, but the issue is that there’s nothing clear about how to achieve those goals, or even what they are.
My first approach towards playing wasn’t from anything the game gave me — instead, I just went in with the knowledge I had of history and of evolution. To be fair, some of that did come in handy. I figured out pretty quickly how to make a stick sharp by beating it with a stone, for example, but beyond that I was at a loss as Ancestors is terrible about communicating to the player.
Largely, I was overwhelmed and confused. Ancestors begins with the player playing the role of a small primate lost in the jungle and in need of rescue. Then, I became the rescuer without any rationale for why the role changed or what it meant. Once the baby is saved, the player is left to their own devices to figure out what to do and how things work.
Apparently the console versions (I played PS4) has had several tutorials and changes added to its formula after the initial PC release, based on feedback to make things more approachable. It’s still got a long way to go, though.
The systems are vague, and impressively, both insufficient and overcomplicated at the same time. One of the toughest things to come to grips with is how many contextual actions the creatures have, with many options available depending on what physical position they’re in, what they are near, and if they’re moving or not. It’s initially quite hard to tell what’s going on and ends up being far more confusing than it needs to be.
Once I came to grips with the controls, I just wandered around for a while and poked around, trying to figure things out. In a meta sense I can see how this might mirror the experience of actually being a creature learning about its world, but in a practical sense it’s frustratingly unclear about how to make progress without going online for hard answers. For example, the adult primate apparently gains experience by having a baby on its back, although I’m not sure why that would be or how I was supposed to know that.
Before long, repetition set in and I found myself doing the same simple tasks over and over, trying to find something that would push the game forward in some appreciable way. Again, does this experience mimic what it would be like to actually live this creature’s life? Quite possibly. But that does not automatically translate into a satisfying or interesting experience that feels respectful of one’s time.
I love the idea of playing through evolutionary history the way that Ancestors: the Humankind Odyssey seems to offer, but as a gameplay experience competing for my time, this one wasn’t nearly fit enough to survive.