Using PDB files for Reverse Engineering

Edit on Github | Updated: 1st April 2024

If you are very lucky indeed then the game you want to reverse engineer comes with full debug symbols in the form of a Program Database file or PDB for short.

These files tend to be created by Microsoft Visual C++ compilers and contain all the debug symbol information for an executable (function names, class names etc) 1.

This means the PDB files are much more likely for platforms such as the PC and Xbox.

They are a lot harder to find than executables with symbols embedded inside as it is much easier for developers to spot the file on a disc than to check if an executable is suspiciously large.

This means that the number of retail games that come with full PDB files is very low indeed, almost like a needle in a haystack.

PDB files pretty much takes away the bulk of the work of a reversing project, as you no longer need to find out what to name every function and it is easy to see where to start.

But the question is, how do we use these binary blobs of debug data to give our executables back their function names? That is exactly what this post will cover.

Displaying the symbols located in a PDB file

PDB files are not like GCC .map or .sym files, they are n to plain text, they are a custom binary format.

So in order to display the debug information that is contained in a PDB file you can use a tool like radare2, or more specifically rabin2 which is a tool that comes as part of standard radare2.

To use rabin2 to display the symbol information to the command line you can run the following command:

rabin2 -P YourFile.pdb

Also if it is a fairly standard executable that you are reversing you can check to see if radare2 can download a pdb file for your executable from the official Microsoft symbol server like so:

rabin2 -PP YoutFile.exe

Using PDB files with Binary Ninja

Binary Ninja makes it almost too easy, just open your game executable and perform analysis like usual. Now go to the Tools menu and select PDB -> Set Symbol Path.

This will open a file dialog, use it to find where you have your .pdb file. Now if you are lucky and the pub file matches the executable that you have analysed you should start seeing function names being populated in the interface!

Using PDB files with Ghidra

To load a pdb file, first open the PE game executable and run analysis. Next just Go to the menu option File -> Load PDB File.

If the executable is in the PE format and has been compiled with debug support Ghidra will start to populate the function names correctly.

Note that there is also a Download PDB file but it is really only for standard Microsoft symbols.

Using PDB files in radare2

First of all load the binary into radare2 but DO NOT run analysis yet! Instead you need to run idp to load the pdb file if its in the same directory as the executable and then run analize as normal.