What images do the words "prehistoric humans" spark in your head? Chances are you think of stone-faced cave-dwellers who hunt saber-toothed cats with crude spears. If your anthropological education is especially lacking, you might even think of modern stone-age families that push around wise-cracking mammoths in lieu of vacuum cleaners.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey wants you to forget about "cavemen clichés" like clubs, animal skins, and half-tamed dogs. Instead, it aims to cast your thoughts to the very dawn of humankind: Over ten million years ago, long before good old homo sapiens spread across the planet—and even before its forebears, homo erectus, started playing with fire around two million years ago.
Ancestors is the long-awaited debut from Panache Digital Games, the studio founded four years ago by Assassin's Creed creator Patrice Désilets. Though it's an action-adventure title that doesn't appear too dissimilar from Désilets' best-known works at first glance, a bit of hands-on time is all you need to discover Panache is serious about putting you in the hairy pelt of prehistoric humankind.
Ancestors lacks most of the staples we take for granted in action-adventure games. There's no inventory, no crafting menu, no weapon cache, no map markers. In fact, there's no map at all. Your survival depends on your senses, your budding intelligence, your observational skills, and, of course, your opposable thumbs.
I recently played about two hours of a preview build of Ancestors at Panache's studio in Montreal. I initially felt a bit like a half-evolved ape myself when I fumbled through this strange, overgrown African jungle that wasn't interested in offering me instruction or direction (the opening moments of the game even warn you "Good luck: We won't help you much" via stark white text on a black field). By the end of my play session, however, I was swinging through the trees like a pro and using my senses to track down food, water, and observe changes in the environment that helped my clan move through vital evolutionary paths. Sure, I nearly killed off every elder and child in my circle to make my tiny bit of headway for humankind, but I came away with a good idea of what Ancestors expects from its players. Namely to observe, adapt, evolve, and most importantly, survive.
That's not to say Ancestors leaves you totally helpless and naked in the jungle, as provocative as that sounds. The game opens with a small cinematic wherein a clan elder is killed by a huge prehistoric eagle, leaving their baby to scramble for shelter. You briefly play as the infant and learn how to locate a hiding spot in a thicket. Then you let loose a distress call (more like a screech, really), that alerts the rest of your nearby clan. One more "body swap" lets you take charge of another elder, locate the baby, and bring it back to your home oasis.
Thus, Ancestors teaches you how to move, how to find shelter, and how to use your senses and intelligence to find points of interest. You're largely cut loose after the crash course, but your goal is no longer a mystery: Avoid getting eaten or otherwise killed long enough to search your surroundings. That includes the unfortunate bodies of deceased clan members.
Since your life is likely to be cut short courtesy of a love-bite from a prehistoric leopard, it's important to pass on your findings to the next generation (which is accomplished by carrying young clan members on your back as you forage and explore). Regardless of whether you choose to explore the jungle by yourself or with a young pal, it's important to retreat to your oasis, sleep, and better yourself. You improve your clan through a "neural pathway map" that's probably Ancestors' closest thing to a traditional skill tree.
You score a surprising number of evolutionary skill points simply by swinging around and using your instincts to focus and observe points of interest. These points can then be used to connect neural pathways and spark new thoughts and movements. For example, early in my play session I acquired enough points to evolve my mobility and switch items (fruits, rocks, etc.) between my right and left hand. That doesn't sound like much on paper, but for an ape struggling to evolve, it's a game-changer. Suddenly, I was able to seize sprigs of vegetation with my right hand, transfer them to my left hand, and then use my right hand to strip the bough of its leaves. Voila: I turned otherwise-useless plants and herbs into medications capable of easing poisons and healing wounds caused by predator attacks and bad falls. Your new skills are shared between other members of your clan, so when you die (and you will), they can pick up the torch. It's just a flameless torch though since, well, you're a long way from discovering fire at the start of Ancestors.
Ancestors purposefully makes you feel helpless, but its lack of direction, markers, and maps are strangely freeing. I'm the kind of person who likes to take my time and see what I can see in open-world games, and that's precisely how Ancestors expects you to find your way. Traveling through the treetops feels good, which also encourages you to explore; you can grab onto most of the boughs and vines littering the jungle. Swinging, climbing, and scrambling all feel natural. Though, you can't fart around too much in Ancestors or your clan will go extinct (I came close). If your entire clan becomes fertilizer for the jungle floor, you start over. Thankfully, reproduction is an option, but I didn't have enough time to court a sexy monkey mate. It's on my "To Do" list.
To solve problems, grow, and learn, you need to think like an ape. Let's say you find a coconut. How do you access the edible meat? First you need to learn how to use both your hands and strip off the fruit's green hull, but then what? How do you crack the titular nut? Some of the frustrated motions your primate avatar makes can provide a clue. Why not head back towards the riverbank closest to your oasis and pick up a chunk of the granite you noticed there earlier? There are moments playing Ancestors where I felt very pleased with myself. It's good to know I'm approximately as intelligent as an ape that existed eons before the invention of toilet paper.
Whatever else you do in Ancestors, you need to stay on your toes, and stay fed, watered, and well-rested. Don't expect to instantly whip up makeshift tents and campfires like in most survival games, though. You have to forage for fruit, find clean water, and seek out predator-free areas to take your naps in. Failure to comply with the basics of survival means you run the risk of entering a hysterical state. When you're hysterical, you're treated to an unsettling experience: The screen washes out in a grey fog and the landscape is suddenly filled with blood-red visions of raptors, sabre-cats, and wolves lunging for you. I was surprised to discover it touched on some primal nerve buried deep within me, some dusty emotion I haven't had any use of since I was a child scared of whatever lurked in my bedroom closet at night. Needless to say, Ancestors' hallucinations are an effective way to remind you to stay fed, rested, and hydrated. Vague flashes of predators leaping at your face are a better motivator than a simple red bar that gradually ticks down.
We're coming up on four years since Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey was first announced. Its development cycle hasn't been as lengthy as the actual evolutionary history of humankind, but it's still not been a short, straightforward journey for Panache. The result of Patrice Désilets' journey with his own clan will be available to play later in 2019. Prepare to jump, fall, climb up again, and learn a lesson or two on your way back to the top of the jungle canopy. Just keep a sharp eye out for big, big birds.