Walking through the streets of Montreal, I was unsure what I
should expect from Ancestors: The
Humankind Odyssey. It had the pedigree to suggest it could be the next big
thing—taking the adventure game formula back to the dawn of man—and it was an
intriguing concept that has had me excited since the first trailers hit
With Patrice Désilets, creative director of Assassin’s
Creed on the team, the talent was there to make something special. It was
with this mindset that I stepped into the small studio and readied myself to
spend some time with the game.
When Désilets sat down with the small group of writers, his
passion for the project was immediately evident. Watching him load the game for
the first time made it clear that Ancestors would quickly become
something more exciting than a simple trailer could adequately explain.
Set in the Africa of 10 million years ago, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey manages that odd mix of feeling familiar and new all at the same time. Within minutes of picking up the game, the controls felt fluid and intuitive. Much like Assassin’s Creed, the action button is used to grab and climb, with additional buttons for intelligence (understand the world around you), sense (spot danger etc.), and communicate.
It is a genius system because even though the game never
feels easy, you will find yourself comfortable with experimenting and trying
new things within the first hour of playing—and experimentation is the key with
Ancestors. You play as a group of early primates that still doesn’t fully
understand the world around them. It is up to you to explore, try out, and test
your limits to push your tribe to evolve. Even with the simple levels of
communication present in Ancestors, few games have felt more human in
the first minutes. The raw, visceral nature of the universe the game creates
was immediately evident. The sense of fear, powerlessness, and overwhelming
odds are ever present. You are a small tribe of hominids, struggling to survive
in a world wanting nothing more than to make you food.
Each new fruit you eat, rock you pick up, or bed you make
will help your evolution, and these traits, much like an RPG, will make the
overall gameplay experience more comfortable, and as time goes on, rewarding.
Granted, not all things you try in the world will be friendly, but that is all
part of the experience.
While it is an immediately understandable game, it is by no
means a comfortable experience. In the short two hours I was able to play I
managed to die over five times, with many of the deaths being long, drawn-out
struggles as I tried to get to safety with a broken leg. The survival element
is ever present, with the constant need for food, sleep, and water always present—you
can also die on one of the many quests available.
Much like a Souls game, there is real consequence to
death. If you die with a baby on your back, you will need to rescue them. Your lives
are dependent on there being adult bodies in your tribe left to jump into. Your
tribe members basically act as your lives, and once they run out, that is it
for your time in Ancestors.
While it may be stunning to look at, it is always evident
that behind the beauty rests danger. The developers at Panache have done a strikingly
good job at making this ever-present. From the way your display will glow when
your character feels fear to the way the opening scene shows the level of
danger in the world, you will never feel completely safe while in the wilds of Ancestors.
Giant snakes, birds, large cats… there is always something looking to make a
meal of you, and it will take all your skills to avoid a grim fate.
While this may sound brutally difficult at times, Ancestors
manages that balance of paying off each challenge it sets before you. For every
heartbreaking fall I suffered on my way up a tree, the feeling of making it,
and finally getting a few tribe members across the forest more than made up for
it. There is such beauty and humanity within Ancestors that it is hard
to deny it is merely a fun game to explore and spend time in.
Now, as with any game of this nature, it is hard to say what
the final experience will be like, especially when the team at Panache Digital
Games are aiming for a full 50-hour experience spanning millions of years’
worth of evolution, but if they can keep up this level of interest there is
real potential here.
Patrice Désilets and the team at Panache Digital Games have
a lot of talent and they are throwing it all at Ancestors, and while it
may not be for everyone, what they have built feels unique, exciting, and
special. As I walked away from the studio and boarded my plane, I felt that if
they pull it off it could be a new landmark for narrative design, but for that,
we will need to wait for the final release. Ancestors:
The Humankind Odyssey is slated for release on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox
One in 2019 for a digital-only launch.