Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Ancestors: Humankind Odyssey attempts to mash up survival RPGs and open world games and ends up with a weird, flavorless paste. Controls are awkward and gameplay is repetitive with far too many sticks and too few carrots. Its visual beauty and excellent sound can’t compensate for its half-baked gameplay.
Evolve an ape, devolve your gameplay
You control a lineage of chimp-like apes that you’re trying to evolve into something akin to humanity. A:THO prides itself on refusing to hold your hand; it explains how its controls work, and then you’re on your own.
You spend most of the time using your intelligence and senses to analyze the world around you. This mechanic involves standing in one place and observing the world around you. Relevant elements are highlighted with question mark icons. You aim your view at these icons and hold buttons to analyze and identify these icons and get more info. If you move, your intelligence and senses deactivate.
In the early game, you can memorize the location of a single icon at a time, which means that you can continue to see the icon when your senses / intelligence deactivate. You run toward it, examine the item, and then activate your senses / intelligence again to find something else to look at. Occasionally, you might use your senses to detect predators, which functions pretty much exactly like using intelligence to find berries to eat. If this sounds boring, that’s because it is.
You can see studio founder Patrice Désilets’ background in the Assassin’s Creed games here, but instead of a million icons on your minimap, they’re in your main HUD. It’s not an improvement. Also, did I mention there’s no minimap? I get that prehistoric apes don’t have GPS, but come on.
Carrots and sticks
Somehow, A:THO managed to ruin the standard open world formula. Exploring unknown territory makes your ape panic. Their dopamine level drops, and if it zeroes out completely, your ape runs around until they enter a hysterical state and you lose control of them entirely. The only way to avoid this is to “rationalize your environment” by using your intelligence and looking around and identifying objects. Identify enough objects, and your ape calms down and your clan’s territory expands.
It’s the same dull core mechanic, but now with a time limit. If you don’t do this boring thing fast, you lose a life. There’s no reason for an open world game to penalize you for exploration. I theorize that they added this feature because there’s no minimap in this game. Normally, exploring unknown territory in open world games is dangerous because your map is blacked out. But A:THO deprives you of a minimap, so it had to find some other way to imperil you. This isn’t fun and it doesn’t work.
But that’s not the only way the game punishes you. In order to gather neuronal energy (A:THO’s XP equivalent), you need to carry a baby ape around with you while exploring your environment. If you get killed, your consciousness transfers to the baby ape who is now panicking and needs to find a hiding spot. If you manage to hide, your consciousness then switches to an adult ape (who is probably way back at your home base) and you need to go find the baby ape. You can’t evolve until you find it, which means you can’t take advantage of any stored XP to make the journey to the baby ape easier. Are you fresh out of baby apes? You won’t get any XP until you get one.
The controls feel like an early 2000s 3D platformer. I’m never quite sure which direction my ape is aimed when I’m trying to jump, and fall damage leads to broken bones. Also, when climbing stone, it’s not always clear which surfaces you can climb and which ones you can’t. When I first heard about A:THO, I was hoping to swing from tree to tree, exploring a vast jungle. Instead, I’m much better off sprinting through the underbrush, leaping up into trees only when a predator shows up.
Speaking of which, combat is awful. If you’re attacked by a predator, the game enters extreme slow motion. You hold A and pick a direction. You release A to dodge. I’ve successfully managed to dodge a predator once. The timing and direction required for success aren’t clear. If you’re carrying a rock, you can try to counterattack, but I haven’t been able to pull that off. I’m not bothered by difficulty; I’m bothered by the lack of clarity and mechanical monotony.
If a predator hits you, you’ll suffer either a broken bone (which eventually heals on its own) or a laceration (which, for some reason, doesn’t). A broken bone severely hampers your movement while a laceration lowers your life expectancy and total stamina. If you don’t figure out how to stop the bleeding, you’ll eventually die. But A:THO never tells you how to save yourself (the answer is Kapok Fiber, found high in the jungle canopy). Oh, but if you need to heal a broken bone, just let time pass. Take a nap and it’ll probably go away. Did I mention that this game was “inspired by true events”?
A:THO has an entire advancement tree but the game never informs you what you should be doing in order to advance. You’ll sometimes get notified that a neuron has matured, but you need to go back to your home base to evolve. They’ll tell you what a new neuron does, but not what it builds to, or what that particular part of the advancement tree’s apex skill is.
The player shouldn’t be baffled about the game’s advancement mechanics. Playing A:THO feels like doing homework for a professor who refuses to explain how to pass the class. Depriving me of this information hinders my enjoyment and does nothing to increase immersion.
In order to keep your clan strong, you also need to breed and make baby apes. Several hours in, I still wasn’t sure how to facilitate that process. I know that grooming other apes plays into that process, and it explains that you can press and hold B to do this. The receiving ape sometimes likes this and sometimes doesn’t. This has something to do when I release B, but I couldn’t figure it out, and to be honest, I didn’t care enough to really try.
I advanced the next generation, and most of the apes in my group died of old age. I was left with two remaining apes who were then killed by some kind of jaguar. My lineage ended shortly after that. Maybe that’s for the best.