Review: Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • PC

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
Format: PSN (5.15 GB)
Release Date: December 6, 2019
Publisher: Private Division
Developer: Panache Digital Games
Original MSRP: $39.99 (USD)
ESRB Rating: T
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an extremely unique take on the survival genre. You play as humankind’s most distant primate ancestors and you are tasked with surviving and evolving your species. The typical survival tropes of crafting, building, and fighting waves of enemies are replaced by more primal necessities, such as learning to use tools, harvesting wild foods and investigating their effects, and avoiding predators in order to stay alive.

The game begins frantically, as you take control of a young primate who has only one goal: to hide. Tension is created by the sounds of stalking predators and ominous images flashing in and out of view. The effects fulfill their purpose of creating a sense of despair, but they also create confusion for the gamer, which makes for a frustrating experience. When your character is in this state of near-panic, the images and changes to the game’s lighting make it difficult to see the environment around you and to know what to do within the game. While it is a clever way to make the player experience the stress that their character would be feeling, it does not make for an enjoyable gameplay mechanic.

Ancestors is played from a third-person perspective and the game does a good job of approximating your primate’s movement. You are given the freedom to explore the lush jungle environment around you almost immediately. Trees, boulders, and rivers can all be traversed. Simply exploring the nature that you are surrounded by is one of the game’s highlights. However, that freedom of movement is too often hindered by frequent encounters with insurmountable enemies or the constant need to monitor your health and well-being.

As the game’s title suggests, the goal of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is to further your lineage by learning new skills, voyaging out into the wilderness to create new settlements, and expanding your numbers. The game focuses on the science of evolution, giving the player such instructions as “assign neuronal energy to connect neurons and develop your lineage’s capacities,” and “reinforce new capacities by the passing of generations.” These descriptions read more like a text book than in-game instructions. Ancestors walks the fine line between intentionally leaving players in the dark for the sake of immersion and not providing enough feedback to create an enjoyable experience.

The moment-to-moment gameplay of Ancestors is fairly bland. You can use your intelligence or senses of sight, smell, or hearing to investigate your surroundings. These investigations are triggered by the press of a button (which annoyingly stops any momentum you may have built up moving through the jungle) and then another press that locks the observation into place. Points of interest can be memorized, threats identified, or food sources highlighted. The cycle of stopping to use senses or intelligence and then locking the observation into place is tedious and gets old quickly. Even worse, and much more common, is when you are surrounded by uninteresting objects like sticks or rocks.

Learning new skills involves some intuition and creativity. For instance, you may come across food that you cannot eat right away, such as a coconut. You are able to take the coconut and move it into your other hand then pick up a rock and bash it into the fruit until it opens. Once you complete tasks like this for the first time you are notified that a new tool has been discovered. As an adult primate, completing these tasks with youngsters nearby, or even clinging to your body as you navigate the wilderness, can help advance your species at a more rapid rate. These instances highlight the best possible outcome of the lack of direction given in the game and they provide a sense of achievement, however fleeting it may be.

Your primate’s vitality must be maintained at all times. This involves eating, drinking, and sleeping. As straightforward as that may seem, eating and drinking pose constant threats to your health. A poisonous berry or contaminated water source may damage your health or ability to recover from other hazards. Some foods, though, can provide positive effects like a resistance to breaking bones.

Various actions reduce your vitality until you reach the end of your life expectancy, which is functionally your health bar. The more intense the action is that you are taking, the more your stamina is depleted. Energy is limited by stamina level and is also reduced by actions but it refills automatically. This three-part version of a simple health bar is yet another example of Ancestors refusing to follow the status quo. The problem in this case, and in many others throughout Ancestors, is that the uniqueness has very little payoff and often overcomplicates things.

Enemy encounters are extremely frustrating. In the early stages of the game, before you have created weapons and investigated the alligators, giant snakes, and other predatory dangers, the only option is to flee from enemies. Despite being able to use your senses to locate enemies in advance, they often appear seemingly out of thin air and attack immediately. You are given a moment of time being slowed down to react and dodge, but there is usually at least one quick follow-up attack. If you are struck, and not simply killed on the spot, then your energy is depleted and you are often inflicted with a negative status effect such as bleeding, which lowers your vitality over time.

Each time your character dies, you assume control of a young member of your lineage who is in a state of panic and must hide. Once you find a suitable hiding place, you become one of the primate elders and must seek out the youngster and take them with you on your journey or bring them back to your home base. This loop is a creative way to effectively start a new survival run without completing starting from scratch.

The sense of progression in Ancestors is inconsistent at best. There are often long stretches of exploration where it feels like you are seeking out food to increase your energy, being attacked or otherwise harmed so that energy decreases over time, seeking out the correct food to cure your infliction, breaking a bone from some kind of accident, seeking out food to help, and so on and so forth. There is no freedom to progress and evolve your species according to your own will. Despite the illusion of an open environment and natural progression, the game places constant roadblocks in front of you that force you into a limited selection of actions required for survival.


Visuals:
The jungle landscape of Ancestors is lush and detailed. Artistically, the game does a fantastic job of making you feel like you are deep within an overgrown wilderness, well before the time of human beings. From towering tree canopies to plunging waterfalls, there is a sense of verticality that begs to be explored.

Lighting is used very effectively throughout the game. There is a day/night cycle as well as dynamic weather, and the changes in lighting can make one location feel vastly different from one moment to the next. Light plays beautifully off of treetops or slowly winding rivers.

As mentioned previously, there are visual effects such as changes in color and lighting, a blurriness to the camera, or flashes of menacing pairs of eyes that may or may not be part of reality. While these displays are technically impressive, they do not lend themselves to a an enjoyable gaming experience.

Ancestors is by no means on par with the visuals of major blockbusters like Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War, but it plays to its strengths. The artistic direction of Ancestors is nearly as unique as its gameplay. There is a simplicity to the visuals, particularly when the HUD is turned off, that is both peaceful and engrossing.


Audio:
The audio design of Ancestors seems deliberately muted. Your sense of immersion in the wild jungle is not interrupted by bombastic music or modern sound effects. The music is largely percussive with some gentle synthesized tones, but it does swell appropriately during more intense moments. The sounds of nature are incredibly realistic, from the call and return of your primates to the far-off cawing of prehistoric birds.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is one player only and features no online component.

Conclusion:
Ancestors is ambitious if nothing else. The premise of the game and its twist on survival mechanics are wildly creative and enticing on paper; however, there is just not much fun to be had with the actual gameplay. If you place a lot of value on the uniqueness of a video game experience then Ancestors may be the ideal game for you. If you want a more traditionally satisfying game then it most definitely is not.

Score:
6.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Brock Arnett

Gamer since the NES days, Boilermaker, Colts and Pacers fan. I can’t wait until my two boys are old enough to play games with me.

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