Sometimes when we think about humanity and the dreadful wars currently being waged (where human is killing human), it is easy to lose faith in the goodness of the world, and humanity. But there is something about humanity we usually do not think about. It is the immense progress we have made as human beings since the beginning. This includes societal, technological and cultural progress.

I am kind of a nerd and love studying history and sometimes the question does pop up in my mind. How did our first ancestors live, and what struggles did they go through? At least Ancestor’s: The Humankind Odyssey ponders over this, if not doing a good job overall at entertaining the player.

Our ape ancestors would have had a tough life because they were starting from scratch with no application of modern technology, something we take for granted today. So when I heard of a game that visualized the earliest human beings and their evolution, I was excited. In Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey you lead early humans, or hominids, as their group of apes evolve to become modern humans.

This is something no game has ever truly tried, nor is a timeline ventured into. The closest example was Far Cry Primal. But even that did not endeavor to represent a proper depiction of our ape ancestors, their evolution and their first communities. It was also based after humanity had evolved into modern humans rather than before.

This concept complete with the package of a unique time period and inclusion of humanities apex evolution gave A:THO a lot of appeal. Add to that a well-known gaming face, Patrice Desilets, who worked on Assassin’s Creed, this game was expected to be a hit. It disappointed though, particularly those who bought it on release, thinking it would be a gem.

Now, knowing that I am really into exploration that an open-world concept brings, this is my first real foray into disappointment with open world gaming. All discoverable locations look similar and you will be in a tropical forest forever. This kills exploration and discovery from the get-go. And you aren’t excited to find a new location as you are, in say, Fallout.

You are also very likely to be killed by a predator as you go along exploring and after that you may lose some, if not most of your progress if you haven’t slept, even though there is a very basic and ineffectual auto-save feature.

Your task in this game is to pass on your traits and discoveries to your progeny and therefore ensure your lineage grows more sophisticated. Along the way you are going to craft items, discover locations, uncover wild species and improve your lifestyle.

You start with a very primitive hominid. He cannot build a sack or a basket to carry items, he sleeps on rugged ground, he can’t hold anything in two hands, he is dumb as a rock and vulnerable to predators. All this contributed to my hominid falling while climbing  trees and breaking his bones, having an upset stomach due to that tasty looking mushroom he ate, and becoming a scrumptious meal for a cougar or crocodile.

This game has survival aspects. You have to eat and drink to survive and use medical plants to heal cuts, broken bones, or a bad stomach. You also need to sleep regularly and you can run out of energy. This is a highly ambitious and unusual project that has fallen flat on its face. Confusing controls are an annoyance that PC gamers were forced to bear. There is no map and uncovering locations is not fun in any way. Finally the camera angles can aggravate, especially when problems with their angles reveal themselves when being attacked by a vicious predator.

The wildlife is relentless in A:THO and this is a time when animals haven’t fully comprehended that humans are off-limits for a meal and are not to be messed with otherwise either. Huh, perhaps those sabre-toothed tigers were so ruthless in the game because they realized that in the distant future their animal progenies population would decline drastically due to poaching, habitat destruction and human expansion. Just as the human population would multiply at the same time. If you are an animal lover who wants the roles reversed and love humanity being paid in kind for all that environmental destruction, you have to play this game despite its discrepancies.

The most remarkable part of this unremarkable game is its skill tree. As you play, your hominid develops intellect, sense and some form of intelligence. He can learn to dodge attacks from predators, build beds (not a proper modern day one but rather one with leaves and undergrowth) and even walk on two legs. All this is done in a branching skill tree. This massive skill tree however makes progress slow, tedious, and even uninteresting as a result. The tree is designed very well though and those neural branches in the tree really look like you are in the mind of an evolving chimp.

But there is a limit to how far you can go. You cannot make cave paintings (cavemen dipped their hands in animal blood to paint or leave hand impressions) the like of which are found in African caves, nor can you make fire or craft basic stone tips or flints which were precursors to spears (without a wooden shaft). This game is based in an extremely primitive time, true, but most evidence points to the fact that these things were developed in that time period.

To top it all off, your movement speed is annoyingly slow and at the start you walk on all fours. Experimentation pays off and you can try different types of food and note if they are a rich meal or if they give you a belly ache. But this experimentation can turn rapidly into repetition. There could clearly be more content that improves the game.

Throughout playing this, I was drawn into the what-could-be. For example perhaps we could develop familial relationships between the homonids. Perhaps you could look after your chimp family in certain interesting ways. I already mentioned that making a fire would be welcome. There could be an entire new chain of neurons. For example when you discover fire you could have a neuron to make a hearth for warmth and a neuron for a flaming club to scare off predators. It would also be nice if the homonids hunted, possibly in conjunction as a team. Perhaps they could take down a deer, cook its meat together and distribute it, signaling the first establishment of sharing, society and communal settlements. Perhaps there could be indications of the first emergence of war and your hominids could be attacked by a colony of other hostile hominids.  Perhaps you could domesticate certain animals.

So much was missing from Ancestors and this game brims with potential. But none of those impressive ideas make it into that game. With all the important discoveries that stood out for humanity in that time unavailable, you have to ask what is the point of this game. You even wonder whether it really was educational at all (Some players claimed it is)?

Environmental effects were missing too. Perhaps there could be thunderstorms that would drive the homonids into caves, perhaps there could be forest fires which caused widespread panic, perhaps there could even be overflowing rivers at rainy times. Rain does fall sometimes though and your ape has rain and cold resistance which can decline if not monitored properly. There is a day and night cycle too, which hasn’t added much except improving or limiting the brightness, depending on the time of day.

The game tries to be an open world but the world seems constricted and empty, not only because there is no mini map or a proper map altogether. Giving freedom to the player with no real hints may be great for certain survival games like Ark Survival Evolved, but they are not for this one. And the game contradicts itself when it finally gives instructions anyway on say, how to dodge tiger attacks or even make basic attacks with your sharpened wood branch which a two year old could learn. This fails at being good as an open world, a survival game and an action adventure. There is no storyline either.

You can view the world in intelligence mode which simplifies things but isn’t extremely inventive either. This marks useful items like herbs and food, as well as predators and landmarks. You can also remember items on the map and where they are. It’s a good concept but gets stale quickly, particularly because other corresponding aspects of the game aren’t even half as polished.

A:THO is deficient in many ways and suffers from major problems where exploration is not fun at all, the camera angles and controls are confusing, and major discoveries like that of lighting a fire have been left out. But a survival game lover might persevere, eager to push on, like a tenacious, hardy hominid trying to find dinner for his piggybacking child in a treacherous forest, and play this game to the end. Those gamers would be rare though. Others will quit when they lose their progress for the first time and have to do everything all over again, which is not one bit interesting. Fascinating idea aside it holds no brawn in its current form.

Review Platform: PC

Rating: 5

Pros

  • Cool-looking Neuron map in the upgrade menu or skill tree.
  • Can use your intelligence to detect nearby items that may come in handy, as well as landmarks or even predators.
  • Fascinating idea and concept.

Cons

  • Exploration and discovery is not fun at all.
  • Weird camera angles and pathetic controls.
  • Many human inventions of early times, like the lighting of fires, making flint-stone tips are missing. You are essentially controlling a very primitive hominid.
  • The weather and elements do not make a major impact.
  • Game can be both slow and repetitive.
  • Relentless wildlife.
  • You could easily lose your progress in case you die while exploring. Then you have to work your way through everything again.
  • Does not feel like an open world.

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