The creator of Assassins Creed charts eight million years of pre-history as you guide the evolution of ancient apes into proto-humans.
If there was any fairness to how things work it would be established, big budget developers that take all the risks with their games – because they can afford a flop or two – and the indie creators that worked on the more formulaic stuff before earning enough capital to make something more creative. But, of course, thats the opposite to how things really are. If we were an independent developer trying to make ends meet, a survival game where you play as a prehistoric ape is not the easy bet we wouldve gone with. Especially as, in this case, its a bet that has not paid off.
Youve probably never heard of developer Panache Digital Games but you may have heard of its founder Patrice Désilets, who is known as the creator of Assassins Creed. He only worked on the first three games, before an acrimonious split with Ubisoft, but this is his first finished game in nine years, after a run of bad luck with the original THQ before they went bust.
There is still an element of Assassins Creed in Ancestors premise, which also grants you the ability to climb almost any surface and has a keen interest in human ancestry – even if in this case youre going back to before there were any actual humans. Its an unusual idea for a game, and not an immediately appealing one, but you cant say its not something different.
The Humankind Odyssey of the subtitle has been imagined as a trilogy, but this first game starts off in 10 million BC and charts the history of your clan across a further eight million years of history. As that implies, youre not controlling the same ape all the time, but instead are trying to ensure the survival of the group as a whole, taking control of other members if one is killed and, after various time skips, their ancestors; until eventually you get to the point were youre playing as a genuine proto-human.
Ancestors or not though, you will certainly be seeing a lot of death, as prehistoric Africa is not a safe place for your average ape. Not only does everything want to kill you but you must also be careful about what you eat and drink and whether you get enough sleep. Ancestors takes its survival elements very seriously and while it is possible to recover from certain wounds, in a way we have trouble imagining is realistic, everything else has an impressive air of authenticity.
But while simply surviving is your main gameplay concern the overall goal is to gain new skills and evolve your brain, with the later creating the largest time skips in the game. New skills can be passed on to the rest of your clan and their descendants, as you gradually learn to eat a wider range of food (which also requires a change in metabolism), how to craft simple tools and weapons, and to defend against larger animals.
The problem is though, that if your entire clan gets wiped out all of that knowledge is lost. You can still carry on with a new clan but theres a roguelike element where all the abilities and skills have to be learnt again from scratch, since these are technically new apes that have never known such things. It makes sense from a logical point of view but its a hugely frustrating aspect of the game that extends an already overlong experience with needless repetition, sapping not only your will to continue but also to experiment and explore.
Désilets clearly has a vision for Ancestors but very little of it seems to have been designed with the idea that it should be entertaining to play. The limited combat is fine, in its way, but theres such a constant stream of predators trying to eat you that it quickly becomes tiresome. Although it does help to explain humankinds strained relationship with cats, as they must miss the days when their larger relatives were able to chomp their way through a whole clan of apes with relatively little fear of opposition.
The platforming also never really goes anywhere… literally. Although you can scramble up most vertical surfaces – which is a vital defensive tactic – theres rarely anywhere to go from there, as the trees arent really set up to swing between them for any distance. Were sure thats probably authentic too but surely thats one area where the realism couldve been fudged at least a little.
Ancestors is difficult and repetitive for no obvious reason, to the point where it doesnt even allow manual saves. The more you learn the more you have to lose if you get wiped out, with new starting points on the map being one of the few things to be maintained between goes.
While its always interesting to see a video game do something outside the norm almost nothing in Ancestors seems to have been designed from the point of view of being enjoyable. The only major exception is figuring out new skills and crafting recipes, as you try to use sticks and rocks to create something useful. Although the satisfaction from doing that is always tempered by the fact that you know youll have to do it all