Does the name Patrice Désilets ring a bell? This is the man behind one of the most famous video game sagas of the past 20 years. We're talking about the creative director of Assassin's Creed and its sequel, as well as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That's a rather impressive resumé, right? After leaving Ubisoft and working through the bankruptcy of THQ, the man who gave us Altaïr and Ezio decided to found his own studio, Panache Digital Games, and we were recently invited to Paris to get our hands on his studio's first major project, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.
Ancestors is a survival and adventure game that starts with a simple idea; to survive as our ancestors did 10 million years ago. You play as a monkey, or rather a troop made up of a few individuals, and your goal is to evolve - in every sense of the word - meaning that you have to start the human story from scratch.
It all starts with a cutscene during which one of the members of your small group is walking in the jungle with a baby on his back. At this point, they are both grabbed by a large winged predator, and the bird brings them into its nest and violently hits the adult on the head, while the baby falls out of the tree. Once on the ground, you take control of this very young, scared, and disoriented monkey. As we will discuss later, fear is a crucial factor in the gameplay in Ancestors. With a simple button press, you activate "intelligence" that allows you to identify the elements that make up your world; things such as branches, pebbles, medicinal flowers, and sources of water. You spot a place to hide and take shelter, and at this point, the game transitions and gives us control of another member of the group, this time an adult, who was able to hear the desperate cries of the little one you just left. With another button on the controller, you activate your "senses", and these help you to locate the baby and recover them.
The next step is to find the nest where your friend was taken, which is also an opportunity for the game to show you the mechanics of branch-to-branch traversal, because yes, as you're embodying a monkey, verticality plays a very important role in Ancestors. Your character can cling to most surfaces and swing between branches. Without quite reaching the fluidity of games such as Insomniac's Spiderman, traversal remained pleasant and instinctive during our demo. Once in the nest, you find that your ally is dead and you need to tell the rest of the clan.
What then? Well, really that's up to you. There's no linear scenario, no specific goals other than survive and adapt. "[You] evolve as a species but also as a player in Ancestors," Désilets explained. To that end, there are many things to do and discover. For example, you need to be familiar with your environment. At the beginning of the game, if you search the small area of the jungle you're in, you'll see a lot of question marks. You can go to these spots and examine and explore them. Is that flower edible? Can you use this stone as a projectile? Is that a good spot to go fishing? And so it goes as you come to understand how your environment is crucial to progressing and evolving.
By exploring you unlock new "connections" in your brain, and these are like abilities you unlock via a skill tree. Very quickly you learn to hold an object with your other hand, allowing you to modify it, in turn letting you remove pieces of wood from a branch to make sticks or break coconuts. The more you learn and discover, the more you unlock skills that help you to explore and understand your environment. This also applies to the development of the senses and your intelligence, since the more you use these faculties, the more you can improve them and in turn make them more useful.
We spoke earlier about the management of fear, so here's an example of how it works. After we strayed too far from where the other monkeys stayed and lived, we entered what is called a "fear zone" - a part of the map completely unknown and therefore rather scary. The key to conquering these new territories is to analyse them using your senses and your intelligence. Ancestors also requires you to manage your dopamine levels. Displayed at the bottom right of the screen, your dopamine level corresponds to your general state of mind. Most of the time you're calm and thus your this level is normal, however, if you encounter a hostile animal (in our case a boa), then your monkey will be alert or even worried and their dopamine levels will drop. You are probably wondering what happens when you go below the critical level, and we found that out when we were attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger. If your dopamine drops too low, your monkey gets hysterical and becomes uncontrollable, sending you back to camp.
Nothing forces you to try and conquer the jungle at full steam. You can also decide to stay with other monkeys to develop your communication skills by interacting with them or by fetching others who are scattered around the map, convincing them to join you and your group. Success will be based on a clever mix of exploration and communication with clan members.
During our time with him at the event, Patrice Désilets explained to us how Ancestors is aiming to be a so-called "triple-I" game, the equivalent of a triple-A but for independent games. "We do not do pixel-art, the world is beautiful, we interact with all the elements, and then you only saw the beginning. We are talking about a map that represents the African continent, it's not a small map," Désilets told us. "Killing a leopard in the moonlight savannah with waterfalls in the background or being chased by hyenas, these are unique moments," he added later.
Looking back at our time with the game, Ancestors seems to be an interesting project that will certainly disrupt player habits during the first hours (as was the case for us), however, in the long run, it should be a unique experience if the player takes their time. In addition, although the game is still in development at the moment, Désilets has promised us that the game will be released this year. "It's been 10 years since I shipped a game, it's ready [...] it's going to be this year, and I can not wait."