By Ronald Gordon
How long do you think you’d last if, millions of years in the past, you had to build a civilization from scratch? Ancestors may just have the answer to that question.
Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is a new third person survival game developed by Panache Digital Games and published by Private Division. The game is set a full 10 million years ago, and you play as a species of Hominids during the dawn of humanity. Your goal is a simple one, Survive. The game offers many ways to do that, and in many more ways, things can go terribly wrong.
Ancestors starts out by dropping you straight into the fray, as you play as a child of about four years old who has recently been thrown out of a tree by a bird that has also killed your protector (who, from the graphics, I assume is a grandparent). Once you find a safe hiding place, you get to play as one of the adults who goes to look for that child. In the process, you experience the wild world of Prehistoric Africa, which is as harsh and unforgiving as you would expect. The expansive and breathtaking jungle is where you call home. But you’re not the only one. There are many terrifying and dangerous animals that lurk among the trees and vines, aching to sink their teeth or claws into you if you’re not strong enough to fight them, or fast enough to flee.
In Ancestors, you work to improve the overall state of your settlement and to evolve as much as you can while avoiding extinction at all costs. In order to improve, you have to first adapt to the situation around you and learn as much as you can from it; that’s where the game’s intelligence system kicks in. You see, you can interact with items such as the rocks you find lying around, the different sources of food you run into, and even other animals, all of which can trigger different learning neurons to fire. When this happens, you’ll get a flash with a picture that displays the new neuron you unlocked and explains how it will allow you to better adjust to different situations and overcome various obstacles that might interfere with your evolution. You might gain the ability to pick up or drop things while moving, for instance, or to walk upright. So you have to do as much as you can, and interact with anything you can, in order to prolong your survival, even if only by a bit.
I enjoyed this aspect of the game because it pushed me to explore and absorb all I could from what I found. I banged rocks together to see out if I could change their use, stripped plants to see what they would become, and even ate some possibly dangerous things like wild mushrooms, all for the sake of my survival. It helps that as you experiment with different items and find new uses for them, you’d also remember what you could do when inspecting certain items. When you inspect an item, small icons with attached names float nearby it, representing objects that can affect the state and use of what you’re examining. You can often see symbols of different rocks appearing when you inspect a stick because you can use them to sharpen it, or icons of things you can construct with enough of what you’re examining. If you haven’t discovered all of the different ways you could alter an item, then a question mark icon appears showing you that there are still some things you could use to alter said item.
The game is about more than banging rocks together to see what happens, though. It’s also about how harsh this period of human history really was. Ancestors has a way of making its concept feel eerily real, because there’s a fright and hysteria mechanic that comes with it. When you explore an unfamiliar area or find something new in the wild, you’ll start to feel a bit uneasy, due to your understandable fear of the unknown. You can overcome this by examining and memorizing what’s in the area, but the unknown isn’t much compared to the terror of encountering the predators that dwell within it.
When you come in contact with another animal, like a Warthog or a Grass Snake, your vision becomes restricted and you begin to feel worried. You can scare it off with the intimidation feature, but this has its drawbacks, compared to simply climbing a tree or running away. The more you intimidate something, the more your dopamine levels, which are indicated by a bar in the display, begin to drop. And if you lose all your dopamine, you begin to panic. Then your character won’t stop running until you’ve escaped the situation. If you fail to find an escape route to run, you get Hysteria, and you’ll lose control of your character, which will automatically flee to a nearby sanctuary.
After discovering this aspect of the game, I immediately became very aware of my surroundings, making sure to scan the area with my intelligence and senses before making a move, since most creatures blend into the foliage very well. I’m not the best survivalist in the world, so there were still moments when I was set back due to Hysteria, especially when I came in contact with the bigger predators of the forest, like the Golden Machairodus or the African Rock Python.
The graphics in the game are realistic, and I was impressed by the attention to detail in the massive jungle that you journey through. The trees, the grass, the flowing rivers and waterfalls all make the game and its environment feel alive, and makes you feel almost reverent in this great African jungle. The music is melodic and enjoyable, making the atmosphere feel less like a spine-tingling survival experience, and more like you’re playing through an episode of National Geographic on Hominids.
Ancestors is a great game when it comes to using the concept of adaptability in survival in an interesting way. The goal you should always reach for is advancing as a species and closing the gap between Hominids and Humankind. You have to adapt and evolve in order to progress in your lineage, which is the name for the species you control in your save. But if you do fail, you can use the knowledge you’ve gained in the next lineage, and so on and so forth. I’d definitely suggest it to those who want a genuine survival experience that will test their mettle in this treacherous prehistoric world. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find a way to make some type of weapon other than a sharp stick. It’s not as effective as I hoped it would be.
Sophomore intern Ronald Gordon is creating the City Tech College chapter of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.