As homosapiens, we're always evolving. Except, instead of the dumb ways I evolve—like discovering the glory of getting a water filter attachment to my faucet so I don't have to drink pure tap water anymore—the apes (excuse me, hominids) that eventually evolved into us were learning how to survive by rubbing the little twigs off a tree branch to make a smooth stick.
How I feel playing Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, the new evolutionary survival game directed by Patrice Désilets of Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia fame, is probably not that far off from how my ancestors felt 10 million years ago just trying to survive. Even with a full HUD and tutorial prompts on, Ancestors stubbornly refuses to teach you anything. All you're shown in the beginning is how to identify things like plants or sticks in your surroundings using your senses—sight, smell, and sound—and loosely how to manage your clan of other hominids.
The end goal, basically, is to evolve millions of years into the future. Time passes in-game, but it also jumps 15 months into the future with each baby born in your clan, and leaps thousands of years into the future if you kickstart an evolution, which is possible only after meeting specific requirements. And here's a tip I learned the hard way: the more you do before starting an evolution, the smarter and more capable your future hominids' generations will be. At the start of each evolution, you'll be treated to a report card of sorts, letting you know what you're faster at learning than the actual hominids, and what you were maybe worse at. There is a soft endpoint where you evolve your lineage millions of years into the future, and you either matched or beat the actual evolutionary state of humanity.
The brief opening sequence is a crash course in the basics of Ancestors: a parent dies with a baby ape clinging to its back, and then you must direct that baby to safety in a hidden area. From then on, you shift to another hominid in your clan, and you're off to go find where the baby is hiding, and coax them out through steady button prompts.
I have played this exact introduction four times, and mostly not because of my own failings as a hominid nurturer.
I've unfortunately hit many bugs in my dozens of hours with Ancestors, which despite an alleged endpoint, is a game based on individual runs like Civilization or a roguelike. When every member of your clan dies, it's game over. The bugs I experienced scaled from minor annoyances to my progress being effectively halted.
One in particular I hit in two playthroughs—one 10 hours in, the other just a few hours. In both, my solo-exploring hominid died and I'd get my baby to safety, but when it came time to switch to a new hominid, no clan member to take over was present. I couldn't interact with anything; I was only able to hear the other members of my clan out of frame. A patch released late in the review cycle half-fixed this. When I went back to these saves and it came time to switch to a new hominid, I had to sit through the death animation of a poor hominid that was probably thriving before I came into the picture, and then it had me take over a separate one in the same settlement.
A couple days before the patch hit, Panache Digital Games offered a save file to put me about where I was before the bug, near the edge of the initial jungle, pre-any evolutions. But it was here where I hit new complications. One of the most vicious of predators, a wild tiger, appeared in my settlement immediately upon me waking up from sleeping. (Settlements, the tutorial prompt tells you near the start, render your clan "mostly" safe from outside predators.) In a scramble, I intimidated the giant sabertooth-like cat away by holding B, and herded my clan into a nearby tree. My senses were still pointing out a predator in our midst, even though there was now nothing there.
We climbed back down, only for the giant cat to reappear out of thin air. Sometime later, in the same playthrough, my poor hominid entered a fit of hysteria while out exploring, which booted me back to my settlement. (Taking care of your hominids with sustenance and using your senses to identify things and creatures in your surroundings is an easy way to keep your hysteria meter down.) Again, the invisible sabertooth arrived, and attacked myself and my clan. With my meter so low, it would send me into hysteria again, and boot me back to the settlement like I wasn't already there. It was like Groundhog Day; I was doomed to repeat this over and over again.
It's been hard, as a result, to parse the pacing of Ancestors when every couple hours I'm hit with some bug or annoying happening. Fighting predators, in particular, is always a struggle. When a predator, like the aforementioned big mean feline, is about to attack, time slows down and you have a limited window to either dodge or attack if you're holding a tool. The window of opportunity for this is slim, though you can boost it with evolutionary traits. It never stops feeling clunky though. It was rare that I'd ever get the timing right, even with the evolutionary bumps.
Even post-patch, which admittedly fixed the most tedious error, it still carries other bugs. Two evolutions deep into one lineage of hominids, I took two parents with babies on each of their backs exploring, to hopefully quadruple the "neuronal energy" our lineage was absorbing. (In layman terms, that's the experience points you gain when doing anything, which you can then unlock evolutionary traits with.) We discovered new locations; we found a weird-shaped fruit. My plan was to find a fresh place to establish a new settlement.
But our time was cut short when a predator attacked. Instead of giving me the option to fight back or escape, it immediately panned me to the next hominid. I picked up a stick with the intent of stabbing it and scaring the beast off, but I walked right through it. I watched helplessly, not even my intimidation helping, as my companion was mauled to near-death—the only thing stopping the slaughter was me sprinting away from the area, and suddenly the other mother was next to me, babies in tact.
Ancestors is a baffling, frustrating game, to put it lightly. Still, there are moments of clarity, like when you discover how to use a new tool, or when you unlock traits that feel tangibly better than before. With each evolution, too, the world around you gets richer. Before an evolution, my clan settled down on the outskirts of the jungle, near a desolate oasis with mostly dead trees around. Some-million years later, the oasis had exploded into a beautiful place. A big tree sprouted in the middle of its pond, and now there is lush grass everywhere rather than dry desert. The first time the environment changed after an evolution, it genuinely alarmed me. I even discovered horses—horses!—deep in the wild as they were chased by the same ol' hyenas I'd encountered a million years prior. My only wish is that the things I'd find in the world, from predators to fruit, changed more with the sheer scenery.
The world that you explore is massive, with many swamps, jungles, cliffside oases, caves, and waterfalls. Surprisingly, for being a game that looks nothing like Désilets' famous triple-A works, you feel the DNA of his past works in it. The evolutionary menus are weirdly sci-fi looking, and the climbing feels straight out of Assassin's Creed. Swinging from tree to tree, in particular, is really satisfying once you get into a rhythm of it—especially when your hominids get the ability to swing better in a particular evolutionary trait.
At its best, its clan managing elements remind me of a clunky modern cult favorite: State of Decay. Similar to that game, you can recruit random hominids you find in the wild. If they're panting, you can give them fruit to quench their thirst. If they're scared, you can hold B to comfort them. Helping out an isolated hominid will automatically bring them into your clan.
The lack of guidance is part of what makes Ancestors work. For instance, I didn't know I could pass items along until I came across a lone hominid in a tree; nor did I know that I could bang a rock against a coconut to drink out of it if I get the timing right. While Ancestors doesn't hold your hand, a lot of its systems rely on common sense. Millions of years ago, our ancestors had to learn common sense from scratch.
It's a bummer then that my time with Ancestors has been hindered with complications: of the bug variety, of the annoying AI variety, in repetition that doesn't change up enough over its dozens of hours. Watching how the world evolves with the hominids never stops being cool, but it is a shame to see the creatures reflected in it largely stay the same.
For every cool "a-ha!" moment in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, there has been something that has me on the verge of rage quitting. There's a fascinating, novel concept in Ancestors, but with so many bugs and other tedious issues blocking it, the joy of this survival game feels like it's constantly kept millions of years and a bundle of evolutionary feats away.