Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Preview \u2013 Mankind in Jeopardy

If the first few hours of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey taught me anything, it’s that the fact humanity exists at all is basically a miracle. The third-person survival game from Panache Digital Games is set ten million years ago as you attempt to guide a clan of apes through survival in prehistoric Africa. The goal is to live long enough to pass knowledge down the generational line and recreate our evolution as a species. That’s a hell of a premise.

I was ready to birth civilization into existence as we know it. But fast forward to 45-minutes into my playthrough and the last fertile ape in my community has just bled to death in a soft bed of leaves – because I stupidly made him go to sleep with a gushing open wound – signaling the inevitable extinction of the clan and, with it, I guess, the human race. Sorry, everybody.

Thankfully Ancestors isn’t all broken legs, poisonous berries, rampaging warthogs, mind-bending venomous snake bites, skull-crushing giant birds, and starvation. Though it’s pretty clear in the opening hours just about everything in the forest can and will kill you if you’re not careful.

But I had learned some stuff in those opening hours, which made my next attempt much more successful. And that’s really the message of Ancestors, learn, grow, pass down that knowledge. Ancestors is an intriguing mixture of raw survival and community shaping that I find fascinating.

The last fertile ape in my community just bled to death, signaling the inevitable extinction of the clan and, with it, I guess, the human race. Sorry, everybody.

As an ape, you flex your budding intelligence to scan the forests for points of interest and investigate them: food, unique locations, dangerous animals and plants, and more. Scanning the forest in this way turns you into an inquisitive detective, marking things to go and pick up and turn over in your hands. Like a prehistoric mashup of Curious George and Batman, you’re a primitive detective, with the catch being about 50 percent of the things you encounter can make you sick, kill you, or eat you.

But you also rely on the bestial heightened senses to listen to the sounds of the environment, pinpointing threats, lost clan members, or outsiders to soothe and welcome into your growing community. It’s tough to spot predators at night, even under the clear view of the Milky Way overhead. And in one particularly close call, I had scampered within five feet of a giant adder and its venom-tinged fangs. Luckily I had stopped and listened to the forest for whatever was making those strange sounds, immediately seeing the warbling aural lines coming from it and giving me the precious seconds needed to scurry up a tree. That probably saved my ape, and who knows, maybe my whole clan since I was running low on age-appropriate apes to create the next generation.

Similarly, much of the game is about that organic, natural progression through foraging, making discoveries and building a catalog of “things you know about.” When you scan the blank squares in the distance that denote a point, you’re initially greeted with nothing but vague question marks. But as you inspect each one, and add new discoveries to your memory, you’ll start to see the forest as less of an alien world and more the breadbasket you need to support a growing clan. Fruits, berries, sticks and rocks for makeshift tools, leaves to create bedding, fresh water sources, medicinal plants, and more strange and unique items are all waiting to be inspected, modified, and crafted through trial-and-error discovery.

Through trial and error, you can uncover more and more ways to tame the world. That’s how Ancestors hooked me.

As you explore and make discoveries by climbing, leaping, and swinging through the forest canopy you’ll begin to unlock new skills that let you interact with objects in new ways. As you bring outsiders in to bolster your community and build your social bonds with other apes through grooming and communicating you’ll unlock your societal potential with abilities like being able to call the entire clan together to perform group tasks and hunting.

The other side of progression happens in an almost sterile, microscopic view of the neurons growing and firing in your ape’s brain, building pathways to new unlockable skills.

For example, one of the first abilities you can unlock is switching hands with a held object. That seems like a shockingly low rung in the evolutionary ladder, I know, but it’s not. Upon these tiny foundations of success, you evolve. The dry branch you’re carrying around can now be shifted to your left hand, suddenly allowing you to alter it. So, you strip off the twigs and leaves, and now you’ve got a dry stick. A tool. But what can you do with it? You can counterattack animals that lunge at you. You can pry up heavy rocks that might hold nutrient-packed insects underneath. Maybe you can even fashion it into a spear with some of that obsidian over there one day. I don’t know yet, but I know it does have a purpose, and through trial and error, you can uncover it. That’s how Ancestors has hooked me.

There’s a really engaging level of discovery and experimentation in Ancestors. With each new neural unlock, you can affect the world around you, allowing you to do a little more. And if you take care of your community, you can pass this knowledge onto the next generation. You need baby apes to survive, they’re the little sponges that soak up this experience, and when they’re ready, you fire off the generational leap and jump forward a number of years. Now they’re all grown up and a stronger foundation thanks to the knowledge they already have, and with those skills, they’ll build new knowledge, have babies of their own, and pass on teachings old and new. And so on and so forth. That’s the hope anyway.

How the hell am I supposed to survive against a saber-toothed tiger that just ate the giant constrictor snake that just tried to eat me?

After a little over two hours playing, I have more questions than when I started: what was that meteor that exploded overhead? I can see the smoke off in the distance so I know there are objectives to guide me to new places. How do I conquer my fear when I stray too far from my camp and avoid succumbing to hysteria if I don’t return to familiar ground. How do I reach the other biomes I know are out there: the coastal, savannah and swamp locations beyond the lush forest. How in the hell am I supposed to survive against a monstrous saber-toothed tiger that just single-handedly murdered the giant constrictor snake that’s been dogging me? Or the terrifyingly massive carnivorous birds? Or the ape-eating crocodiles?

I guess we start just start small when Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey launches later this year on Xbox One, PS4, and PC – priced at $40 USD. What happens when I bang two rocks together? We’ll take it from there.

Brandin Tyrrel is IGN’s Xbox Editor. You can find him on Unlocked, or chat over on Twitter at @BrandinTyrrel.

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