With its rich Gogs undertones and the scent of Biology class in the air, Ergaster and the Habilis is a lemmings style game with a caveman twist you’ll definitely want to get your paws on. It was developed by French Studio Neebla Games, the same team who brought us The Five Cores, a myst-like puzzle solver, and I was very eager to see the dramatic change of theme in Ergaster, as well as how it might be used as an educational game. So sit back and relax, ladies and gentleman, grab a beverage of your choice, and enjoy the evolutionary roller-coaster ride.
Right before the game begins, you’re launched into a cinematic sequence which explains how a fellow named Ergaster (who was most likely named after extinct species Homo Ergaster) is doing his thing thriving amongst the Habilis. But he thirsts for adventure and decides to go out and explore the world, and the Habilis choose to follow him. Only problem is, while they’ve mastered the art of bipedalism, they still don’t know how to jump.
Through a series of basic tutorials, you learn the essence of gameplay: Jumping, sprinting, pummeling through boxes, and navigating your way through the rough cave terrain. Despite being historically similar to games like Prehistorik or Prehistorik 2, movement is a lot looser in Ergaster; jumping allows you more freedom to control where you land, and the same applies for when you’re dropping down ledges. A really neat design feature was the decision to have explanations of what (Xbox) buttons to press painted onto the walls in the background, so you never feel lost in the game. Something you’ll want to watch out for as you play is silex, a collectible form of hard rock which is dispersed throughout the levels. It acts as your currency to unlock levels later on in the game, including Asia. One downside to gameplay is that there are no checkpoints throughout the tutorials (or the main game), and touching any spike just once means instant death, but hey, hakuna matata. I also felt there was a bit of a steep learning curve, with some gaps being rather narrow to blast through. For me, Ergaster definitely falls into the category game designer Nicole Lazzarro describes as “hard fun,” which means frustrating yet pleasant.
It’s once you access the main levels that the fun really begins though, because you’re no longer alone. Now you have the added responsibility of safely guiding the clumsy yet adorable Habilis to the end of each level. They’re depicted as tiny lemming-like creatures who mindlessly follow you, and will walk straight to their doom if you don’t stop them, which you do by whacking them to create a stopper. Don’t forget to keep in mind that the game is dated back to 1.8 million years ago, so only primitive forms of technology are available here. And by primitive I mean spears, banana peels, and your bare fists. TNT is the exception, which I found hilarious and wonderful. Overall, Ergaster does a nice job of keeping you engaged with its variety in puzzle design; you’ll often find yourself thinking ahead about how to get past certain areas, which is great food for the brain. Your ultimate aim is to guide your tribe to the shaman-esque hut at the end of each level, and let me tell you: Finally succeeding in getting past all those death traps along the way will have you beating your arms across your chest crying unga bunga.
After you defeat section 1 or The Cave, you progress to Africa which allows you to travel through Kenya, South Africa, and Morocco before you eventually reach Asia. As you might already know, this follows the famous Out of Africa hypothesis which suggests that modern day Homo Sapiens (you and me) migrated from Africa between 60,000 and 125,000 years ago and spread out across the globe. I was tremendously pleased with the fact that the game focused and was based on proposed history, which added another layer to a typical lemmings-style adventure. Games like Ergaster have the potential to make players become more curious about evolution and Biology in general, and could be used as a fun activity in classrooms to get give students a different and more interactive perspective on our history, compared to a textbook or documentary.
Aesthetically, Ergaster is simple yet adorable-watching the Habilis scurry along the ground like mice has a way of igniting those parenting instincts deep inside of you. To be honest, after watching the opening story sequence I wasn’t expecting the Habilis or Ergaster to have such a 2D cartoon-like appearance, but that didn’t detract from gameplay in the slightest. The textures on the cave walls and rock features are pretty impressive, and match the overall game style well. I liked the creativity in enemy design, which included monkey-men throwing bananas at you from the treetops, black birds, random spears that try to impale you, and spiky cactus balls. The temporary bones scattered within levels were usually over beds of spikes, and as the name suggests, standing too long on them makes them crumble, which added another level of challenge to the game, which I loved.
Ergaster is just the right length, and I found that no matter how many times I played the same level, it didn’t fail to intrigue me in some way-which says a lot about the game’s puzzle design. If you’re a perfectionist, you can focus on collecting the maximum number of silexes or try to rescue each and every single Habilis. If you’re an explorer, you can satisfy your curiosity by scouring the landscapes for secret areas. And if you think human evolution is groovy, and like challenging puzzles that require you to strategize and think ahead, then this is the game for you. To get your cave on, you can play Ergaster and the Habilis from Neebla Games on PC for $2.99.