Penumbra: Overture

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Penumbra: Overture game cover

The first of the cult hit series, Penumbra, which puts developer Frictional Games on the map. How close is Penumbra to Amnesia?

Console PC/Mac/Linux
Developer Frictional Games
Publisher Frictional Games
Genre Horror survival, puzzle, indie
Release Year 2007
Game Number 1
Purchase (PC/Mac/Linux, Penumbra Collection) Purchase from Humble Store.
Purchase Penumbra trilogy (PC physical disc) Purchase from Amazon.

Our next subject matter for October 2015 is the game series that puts Frictional Games on the map. While Amnesia: The Dark Descent remains the developer’s most iconic game to this day, the Penumbra series helped make the game the way it is now.

And so we begin with the first episode of the Penumbra trilogy, Penumbra: Overture.

I would definitely call this series a unique one. What we have here is a more modern-era survival horror game that somehow found creative ways to bring in a scary environment.

I’m talking about the early 2000’s here. How do you make the 21st century scary? Well, let’s find out.

Like with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you play in first person view and solve puzzles to progress forward through the game. You explore an abandoned mine at Greenland, digging for clues on what its purpose is while attempting to rescue a hermit living deep within.

You can collect important items such as keys and other tools in order to bypass certain obstacles. You will enter what I call “hub areas,” which are basically large areas that are complex enough to warrant a map.

Penumbra: Overture map
And thankfully, you can find these scattered throughout the hub areas.

To get to the next “hub area,” you need to enter the smaller locations indicated on the map and gather the necessary materials. You are likely to solve puzzles as well. And yes, it is definitely like what Amnesia does.

Compared to Amnesia, I would say the puzzles themselves are easier overall. Some require more thought, such as operating a power generator, but most of them fall under item collection. I’d say the largest difficulty in solving them is if you so happen to be missing an important item that you MUST collect in order to move forward.

You have a health meter as well. Getting attacked by monsters or wandering into harsh territory will cause it to drop. To restore your health, you may find Painkillers throughout the mine—which makes me wonder, why would you take these possibly ancient pills that had been sitting around for God-knows-how-long?

You also have two portable sources of light: a glowstick and a flashlight. The glowstick provides an infinite source of light but is generally weak and provides a small amount of depth. The flashlight has a battery meter that gradually drops during use, but it has a stronger, more focused projection that makes it easier to see what is in front of you. You can collect batteries throughout the mine and they will instantly replenish your flashlight’s energy.

Penumbra: Overture save artifact

Often, you will find strange, glowing artifacts in the mines. They serve as both checkpoints and save points throughout the game.

And of course, back to the monsters.

Penumbra: Overture dog

Penumbra: Overture grey rock worm

Unfortunately, the monsters are unnerving at best but not outright “scary.” That is, unless you have a phobia of certain animals. You can fight back against some of them by throwing objects or use tools like the hammer or pickaxe, but often the best course of action is to sneak away.

But if you choose not to fight, you can crouch down and hide in the darkness. But take into mind that this only works for the dogs. Staring at an enemy for too long can also cause you to panic, making it easier for the enemy to spot you.

One common criticism is the actual combat. While you can use tools to fight back, accessing your inventory is in real-time (so enemies can attack you while you try to pull out that pickaxe). Using the hammer or pickaxe also requires you to apply motion, so you have to actually swipe your mouse cursor in order to swing the pickaxe.

Trust me, it’s choppy and not ideal for an action game.

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In this story, you take control of a college professor named Philip. After receiving a mysterious letter from his father Howard LaFresque—of whom he believed to be dead—, Philip makes a journey to Greenland in order to erase some specific knowledge that Howard had discovered. This is one journey that Phillip will never truly erase from his memory. A true descent to Hell.

Penumbra: Overture beginning

While searching for a certain location, Philip finds himself stuck in a powerful blizzard and takes cover into a hidden mineshaft. However, the entrance is out of reach so curiosity gets the best of him and he decides to explore the mine.

Along the way, he picks up a radio transceiver where a man from the receiving end trapped in the mines pleads for his help. The man calls himself “Red,” and calling him cuckoo is an understatement.

Penumbra: Overture Tom Red Redwood

Penumbra: Overture Tom Red Redwood Penumbra: Overture Tom Red RedwoodPenumbra: Overture Tom Red Redwood

The man suffers from a bi-polar disorder. He can be thoughtful and encouraging one minute, then spiteful and vulgar the next. In spite of this, Philip journeys deeper into the mines in order to rescue Red.

What makes this story so interesting is its unique atmosphere. It makes you wonder how some of the creatures came to be and what the backstory of the mine is.

Red is also a very compelling character. While a friendly man, his odd mannerisms and sudden mood shifts makes him unnerving. His vocabulary is a result of having read books to pass the time for a majority of his life. He is a man fated with a tragic and unnatural life, making him a sympathetic character. His voice provided by Mike Hillard does a great job in carrying out the emotions of the character, which in my opinion is the most memorable thing to come out of this game.

While I wouldn’t call Penumbra: Overture “scary” per say, it can be quite disturbing. Some of the deranged imagery can give you a sudden taste of uncanny valley.

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Don’t you just find those last two pictures sexy?

There is a looming sense of isolation and anticipation that brings about an oppressive setting. Even a sense of tragedy. The depths of the mines are in a decrepit state and reveal backstories of people meeting tragic fates. People just doing their jobs and getting punished by Mother Nature.

Penumbra: Overture Lake Utuqao
It is such a lonely place.

Penumbra: Overture is a rather swift experience that you can complete in a few hours. The puzzles are quite simple and the monsters are creepy enough, but both pale in comparison to the game’s unique atmosphere. The idea of a haunted old mining facility in a modern era is actually quite plausible here, and I believe it is well worth checking out for fans of horror games. While there isn’t much replay value to this game, I personally find the journey quite fulfilling.

However, the sequel is a lot of fun. And we’ll get to that one soon.

Penumbra: Overture

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  • The puzzles are simple but satisfying enough.
  • Tom “Red” Redwood stands out as a compelling and sympathetic character.
  • The setting is interesting and atmospheric, instilling a sense of isolation and loneliness as you journey deeper into the mines.


  • The clunky combat mechanics can easily get you killed, making stealth a better option.
  • The monsters are a bit disappointing and not very scary, despite that you are playing a horror survival game.
  • The game is only a few hours long.
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