Nine years after his last game, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Patrice Désilets has turned back the clocks again. This time, the 15th century isn’t far back enough; his new game, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, is set 10,000,000 years ago, in Africa. The land is filled with fierce green: lizards writhe, leaves sway, and dirty water whirls through it. No missions or maps, no buildings to shimmy up, and the first blades you see are hardly hidden – they are stuck proudly in the cheeks of a sabertooth. Minutes in, you take control of a lonesome chimp, dropped into a dark jungle and surrounded by nature at its nastiest. But before long, you have a special vision mode, the screen is scattered with icons, and you’re clambering up into the canopy to get your bearings. We start with desolation, but it isn’t long before we get Désilation.

So, what gives? Why the long wait and how come we find ourselves flung so far back into the past? It struck me, at first, as the game design equivalent of Thoreau, when he went into the woods. ‘I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,’ he wrote, in Walden, in 1854. And so to Ancestors, which grasps at the facts of life – we are told, in case there were any dregs of doubt, that the game is ‘inspired by true events’ – beginning with a group of apes who live, as Thoreau put it, ‘sturdily and Spartan-like.’ And, true to form (I imagine), life is high-stress, aimless, bewildering, boring, and progress is gained, rather fittingly, as it would be waiting for Shakespeare from a room full of monkeys and typewriters.

The goal of Ancestors is to grind tirelessly through the travails of early man, exploring and learning, jolting forwards periodically through evolutionary jumps. The power to develop your senses, to communicate, to use both hands, to fashion tools, to stand on two legs: all of these are there to be learned and locked in for future generations via an upgrade screen, which displays a fizzing network of neurons, to be sparked and expanded as new chimps are spawned and the torch is passed. However, when you first begin, that mission is glimpsed only faintly; ‘Good luck, we won’t help you much,’ the game wishes and warns us, which I’m sure is the gist of the Book of Genesis. Having spent most of my time with Ancestors before release, I envy those who are playing now – specifically their access to the guiding hand of Google.

Désilets and the team at developer Panache Digital Games place great value in curiosity, with little thought to what it did to the cat, let alone to the chimp. Early hours are spent bleeding, hobbled with broken bones, and woozy with food poisoning. In some sense, trial-and-error is what evolution is, and the game’s cleverest touch is in the way that it doesn’t just parse eight million years on a progress bar; it simulates the act of adapting to hostility in the brain of the player, in a string of little lectures that run from: ‘Do Not Eat the Inky Mushrooms’ to ‘Bang the Coconut with the Rock.’ But the trouble with this is that the process isn’t actually fun, and thus the game’s greatest weakness is revealed. Any daydream about the dawn of man has to confront the harsh reality that reality wasn’t just harsh: it was dull.

Is it any wonder that Stanley Kubrick, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, opted for a jump cut? That he decided to skip out on evolution and whisk us away from the apes in the intro and straight into space? It’s no wonder the most fun I had with Ancestors was when I experimented by starting a new save file with the knowledge gleaned from a prior run. I bounded through knowing how to mate; how to build camps; which plants can be rubbed, like a balm, over cuts and scrapes; how to fashion weapons from sticks; and how to negotiate foreign policy – which is to say: how to use a stick to put a preemptive poke into action as predators come gulping towards me. It’s a shame that the game doesn’t gesture, even slightly, toward so much of it all, and leaves you scrabbling. Surely the dragging of knuckles doesn’t have to be such a drag?

And yet, despite the stubborn design, Ancestors offers plenty of reasons to go ape. For one thing, it offers that rarest of video game phenomenons: the innocent thrill. The swoop and birl of the camera, as you discover a new location, is a wonder – often accompanied by the pop of firing neurons as you acquire some genetic promotion. What about diving out of reach of a crocodile, with its gaping mouth and ranks of glittering teeth, and leading it into the unlucky path of a souped-up panther and watching the clash play out in a cutscene? The naive joys of just seeing what you can see rule the day here, and there’s nothing like swinging through the steamy trees and admiring the view.

Which brings us to the best thing of all, and to the most important question: who doesn’t love a monkey? I can’t deny the time I spent smiling at the sight of a gang of apes hunched in a stream and scooping up mouthfuls of water, or of grinning baby chimps gripping the back of an elder and hitching a free ride. They don’t come along in games nearly enough for my liking. In fact, part of me is glad these stinky, noble creatures can’t see the cruel future that awaits them in video games. What would they think of evolution if they knew they would be clasped in plastic and rolled around. Or consigned to capering about stealing watermelons in a military facility. Or given a red tie – a token mark of civility – and asked to hurl barrels at plumbers. Perhaps they wouldn’t have bothered.

Developer: Panache Digital Games

Publisher: Private Division

Available on: PC  

Release Date: August 27, 2019

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