Penumbra: Overture Review – In the Mines of Madness

We've all heard of Amneisa: the claim to fame of a million Youtube 'Let's Play' channels that scared the pants off gamers around the world. Before Amnesia though, there was Penumbra, and while it may be older, it's no less scary. Take a look back at the first installment in a series that laid the foundations for the most terrifying game in recent history.

The primary logo for Overture sets the tone quite well: a dread-inducing journey into the unknown.


Frictional Games have been touted as the masters of the modern survival-horror genre ever since their release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that reminded gamers everywhere what true horror was really about. Before the release of their seminal masterpiece however, they were better known as the creators of the Penumbra trilogy, a series of games that laid the groundwork for their terrifying magnum opus. Penumbra: Overture was the first installment in that trilogy, and despite its age, should be given due consideration from any true survival-horror fan, for though it is not without flaws, it is just as deserving of recognition as its younger, more well-known cousin.

For those less well versed in gaming nomenclature, survival-horror is largely what it sounds like: a game that focuses on the survival of the player character as they struggle to endure in a hostile and terrifying environment. It’s most classic iteration is that of the haunted house, where scripted surprises and roaming terrors seek to keep the player on their toes and tense with anticipation. Puzzles are often included as barriers to progression, while stealth is emphasized and combat is either discouraged or nonexistent. Overture takes all of this into account in its efforts to spook the player while providing an engrossing experience, working hard to build an atmosphere so thick with dread you couldn’t cut it with a bloody cleaver. You can buy it on Steam for $9.99.


Penumbra‘s story bears heavy signs of influence from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, best known for his popularization of the genre of ‘cosmic horror’ and being a card-carrying racist. Fear of the unknown is a powerful theme throughout his works, as is the concept of ‘forbidden knowledge’. His famous Cthulhu mythos, which was opened to the public domain for expansion by other writers on his death, is full of cases of scholars and men of science who stray too far off the edge of the map and discover things so horrible that they are driven to insanity as a means of coping.

In Penumbra being in the light doesn't always mean you're safe. It may just mean that something else can see you and is running towards you out of the dark, teeth snapping and jaws drooling.
These themes run strong in Overture, as the story opens with Phillip, a 30-year-old physics teacher, receiving a letter from his father (who he has been told died before he was born) shortly after his mother's funeral. The missive instructs him to destroy the contents of a safety deposit box in Mayfair which he has just inherited, and to ask no further questions. Phillip, of course, disobeys and reads the papers contained within, which lead him to an unmarked mine in the frozen wastes of Greenland. Determined to learn his father's fate, he sets out alone to investigate, before summarily getting lost in a blizzard and climbing down an access shaft to escape the elements. From there, everything goes downhill.

Overture, like many games before and after it, conveys its plot through written notes that must be collected by the player during the course of exploration. Each one contains fresh information pertaining to the nature of the mine, its history, and its victims, of which there are many. Some contain clues to aid in the solving of the various puzzles that serve to obstruct Phillip as he tries to find either his father or some answers. All of this is complimented by the frequent ramblings of an unseen character named Red who has control of a shortwave radio which he uses to contact Phillip now and then, Penumbra's tale is told in the best tradition of Lovecraftian storytelling, wherein much is implied, but never fully stated. Imagination is always more enticing and terrifying than fact. Thus does the mystery of the mine keep you moving forward while the dread it instills makes you want to turn back, keeping you edging forward and jumping at every flicker of the lights.


While there is much to be said for the handling of the story, the mechanics also shine through too. Overture's subterranean setting is often dark, but the game quickly gives you the tools to manage this, including a flashlight, a glow-stick and flares, all of which have their own pros and cons regarding usage. For example, the flashlight's piercing beam is useful, but can attract the attention of monsters if you're not careful. Also, it runs on batteries, which must be scavenged for in the environment. Meanwhile, the glow-stick suffers no such limitations on lifespan and rarely attracts attention, but only provides enough light to see a couple feet ahead of you. This clever triangle of light management comes into play quite often as you sneak around or otherwise try to avoid the mine's unsavory inhabitants. Chief among these are starving wolves, which would be simple enough were it not for the fact that close examination quickly reveals that these are not your ordinary ancestors of man's best friend.  If you attract their attention it's best to hide from them, which can be done by crouching behind objects or in dark corners. The game also discourages looking at your enemies while hiding, as it will give Phillip a panic attack, causing his heavy breathing to alert foes to his presence.

Who's a good doggie? You are, yes you are yo-AGGGHHHH!!! GET AWAY! GET AWAY!!!

Sound & Design

A good survival-horror game balances panic and dread, with a greater emphasis towards the latter. Panic is fleeting, whereas dread spiced with bouts of panic make for a more savory horror experience. Overture cultivates this in many ways, using every avenue to construct an atmosphere ripe for the soiling of pants, but none is more powerful than the soundscape. I have previously said that good sound design is one of the cornerstones of a great horror game, and this is where Frictional stands truly without rival. Their skillful use of silence and noise, as well as a menacing, unsettling soundtrack, combine to provide an almost-perfect paranoia-inducing auditory blend. Overture was the first game to make me need to take breaks to release the tension that the sound design had generated. I'm certainly not saying it's on par with Amnesia, whose sound design should be considered a physical threat to someone's mental stability, but the level of competence demonstrated is simply awe-inspiring, not to mention unsettling. One might suspect the development team must've made a deal with one of Lovecraft's elder gods to be this good.

A good example of this application of sound can be found in the opening hour of the game. Shortly after trapping himself in the mine, Phillip decides the only way out is through. Descending into the frigid tunnels below, he leaves behind the entrance area, where despite being alone, there is the steady background noise of the howling blizzard to be heard through the hatch he used to enter. As soon as he goes further though, silence falls, with not even background music to provide comfort. The transition is jarring and unsettling, reminding the player they've just moved deeper into isolation and away from the outside world. It is the calm before a storm, and just when it's settled in that you're alone, something growls in the darkness; your first enemy.

Sound is a powerful element for immersion of course, but its not all that Overture has in that department. Like the games that would follow, this first episode of the Penumbra trilogy includes the ability to pick up and manipulate virtually every object you come across, from rocks and barrels to sticks of dynamite. This is often used to impressive effect for puzzle-solving, as players are forced to turn wheels by moving the mouse in circles, or carrying items in front of them instead of in an unseen bag of holding, as in most other adventure titles. This renders mundane tasks more visceral and real, providing a level of agency to the player that few other first-person games of the time did. The system even plays into the stealth mechanics, allowing you to heft various objects, such as rocks, barrels, or even your supply of flares, into the dark as a means of distracting enemies hunting you.

Overture uses visual story-telling to powerful effect. ​As you descend deeper, the environment changes, going from rustic and crumbling to ever-more established and modern, providing a sense of a journey through history as well as mystery.
Of course, Overture is not without faults of course, being the first installment in the series. Most are minor quirks, such as the amusing physics glitches that are the hallmark of this early version the H.P. Lovecraft Engine, or the  If one flaw stands out above all the others though, it is the fact that eventually you are given the means to defend yourself. Yes, the pickax you eventually pick up is clumsy and unwieldy, which helps discourage combat, and yes, the enemies you face often have numbers or endurance on their side, but the fact remains that once you have an instrument with which to fight back, the threat to the player is diminished, and so too is the terror.

On a more picky note, the graphics of the game are rather dated, though if you're like me, then they only add to the atmosphere. The slightly blurred and sometimes low-quality nature of textures helps lend a sensation of surrealism, as if everything is taking place in a nightmare. Many developers feel ultra-realism is a major means of enhancing immersion. Personally I feel sound design takes precedent, but then it's all about the attitude you approach the game with. Really, I feel its unfair to make such criticisms in any case. When you consider that Overture was crafted at a time when Frictional Games consisted of four people who were using an engine they had built themselves and who had never released another game, it's hard not to feel impressed that they managed to produce such a high quality product despite the obstacles.

The game ends with a cliffhanger, which is unsurprising given the series was meant to be released episodically. The whole thing adds up to maybe six or seven hours of gameplay, which again, can be contributed to the fact that it was made as part of a planned series. It doesn't overstay its welcome, and leaves you hungry for more, as any good game should. Yes, there are some bad design choices, but they are easily overshadowed by the rest of the game's excellence. The combat system was by far the biggest obstacle to my enjoyment of the game, as was easy enough to ignore. Overall, the game deserves appreciation, at least as much as any of Frictional's other titles. Overture and it's sequels are available on Steam as part of the Penumbra Collector's Pack for a mere $9.99. Check it out, but don't complain to me about any soiled undergarments afterwards.

+ Intriguing Story – Sometimes Wonky Physics
+ Powerful Sound Design – Unnecessary Combat System
+ Clever Puzzles – Excessive Note-Reading

Minimum System Requirements:

Operating System: Windows XP/Vista (Requires Compatibility Mode for 7/8/9/10+)
Processor Capacity: 1 GHz
RAM: 512 MB
Hard Drive Space: 800 MB


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