Pepper Grinder review: short, sweet and incredibly neat

Pepper Grinder is one of those games that has so many great moments in it that recounting them would almost feel unfair to anyone hoping to play it. There are feats of platforming prowess on show here that should really be experienced fresh and unsullied by rudimentary descriptions of them, because to say anymore would be to spoil the surprise. This feels doubly important when the game itself is so fleeting in length, its brief and dizzying journey through the dirt, magma, ice and marshy bogs of this strange, treasure-stuffed island coming to a swift conclusion in just over three and a half hours. It left me wanting more the moment the credits rolled, but deep down I know it’s also perfectly formed just the way it is. Rather than outstay its welcome, Pepper Grinder shows up, performs its party trick, then gets the hell out of the way, leaving you to bask in the warm glow of a good game well done.

In fact, describing Pepper Grinder as a platformer is already underselling it. This isn’t so much a game about jumping between ledges as it is about grasping your drill and holding on for dear life as it tears through the world around you. Solid ground means (mostly) nothing to heroine Pepper and her trusty grinder, as the bulk of your time is spent boring through said ledges – as well as clearly marked pillars, mounds and banks of pliable topsoil – before erupting back out into the open again like a rocket-powered dynamo, flying upwards and sideways before diving back into the bedrock. A bit like Ecco The Dolphin, but as a tiny metal Jaws.

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Devolver Digital

A woman attacks a gassy bug near two large steaks in Pepper Grinder

A woman prepares to fire herself out of a cannon in Pepper Grinder

Each level is packed with lots of fun details, which makes the various trails of jewels all the more important to guide your eye safely through its deadly obstacles. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Devolver Digital

It’s not all churning up the landscape, mind. There is a little bit of traditional jumping to be done here, but it mostly occurs in moments of downtime, acting as an intake of breath before the next big drill sequence. And once that drill gets going, hurtling you forward automatically whenever you’re underground, you’ll barely have time to stop and think about anything else. You become a bullet of pure instinct, flying by the seat of your pants as you propel Pepper to victory.

Despite the drill having a mind of its own, however, Pepper Grinder’s controls feel absolutely wonderful – assuming you’re playing on the recommended gamepad, of course, and not actively trying to handicap yourself by attempting to use a keyboard for this. I played the entire game on my Steam Deck, and with every roll of the thumbstick I always felt in complete control of where Pepper was heading, its tight and tactile manoeuvring capable of pulling off precise swirls and loop-the-loops even on tiny slips of terrain suspended in mid-air. She’s a force of nature, old Pepper, and the speed at which you’ll need to direct the trajectory of her drill – whether that’s through static hills or falling fragments upstream – is all part of the game’s challenge.

It’s thrilling stuff, though thankfully the game gives you a helping hand on where to aim your mole-like powerhouse with its glittering breadcrumb trail of coins and jewels lodged in the ground, naturally coaxing you forward through each five-minute level. These jewels were stolen from Pepper’s ship after it ran aground on the island’s coastline by the pink-haired pirate Mint and her gaggle of green, narwhal-like goblin pals. And as she chases them deeper and deeper inland, those glinting trails will take Pepper from sandy beaches to volcanic caverns and icy mountaintops, until you reach their big, very unsubtle hideout in the poisonous marshes.

A giant beetle with two grinders for hands attacks a cargo ship in Pepper Grinder
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Devolver Digital

A woman stands before an icy waterfall with an arc of jewels in the air in Pepper Grinder

A woman uses a grapple swing to avoid thorny brambles in Pepper Grinder

Falling ice, grapple swings, mechs and more await in Pepper Grinder’s dazzling collection of levels. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Devolver Digital

As you might expect, each of these biomes comes with their own respective traversal challenges – the usual ‘floor is lava’-style affairs, big ice blocks that need tearing apart with additional firepower, and eldritch tentacles lurking in the depths of its swampy bogs. Glimmers of additional ledges and telltale cracks in the harder, more impenetrable landscape will also lure your eye toward secret compartments containing big collectible coins. There are five of these in each level, which you can then trade in at each world’s curiosity shop for a special key that will unlock a further, even juicier level in each world. These are definitely worth seeking out, as these locked levels are arguably the standout setpiece of each world – though you can also spend your coins on extra capes and hair colours for Pepper, or trade your growing mass of jewels for stickers and additional (though temporary) life pips.

It’s all familiar platforming fare for the most part, but there are also bolder, more novel obstacles you’ll encounter that feel like pure, tailor-made adrenaline trips – like the developer has put them there mostly because they’re just heckin’ cool, and yes, they’re right. They are heckin’ cool. The key thing, though, is that they never feel pandering or gratuitous when they arrive. These are moments where the power trip feels earned, as there would’ve been plenty of moments leading up to them where you’ll have torn your hair out over a particularly tricky platforming sequence, or fallen several times in a row to a nail-biting boss fight.

A woman uses a giant capsule machine to gain more health in Pepper Grinder
Each world has its own curiosity shop where you can spend your jewels on extra health, but each pip beyond your default four is only ever a temporary bonus, as they disappear when you get hit. Still, given how many jewels you end up collecting, splashing an extra 800 on them every now and again is pocket change. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Devolver Digital

If there’s one major criticism I can level at Pepper Grinder, it’s that most of its best and spectacular setpieces rely on a perfect first-time execution to really deliver that wow factor. Mess up, and it’s back to the last checkpoint, the impact of the stunning, pixellated chaos unfolding around you lessening with every retry. It’s a flaw that can be levelled at a lot of games, in fairness, and platformers especially, but there were moments where my initial delight for a particular sequence was blotted out by a growing frustration once I’d completed it. This happened one too many times for my liking, and don’t even get me started on the bosses – all of which could have benefitted from having an emergency shop option on death to buy yourself more health, rather than return to the map, go to the shop, traipse back to the boss and endure their always slightly-too-long introductory cutscene again.

There are a few dents and scratches in Pepper Grinder’s toolkit, then, and some of them will require a little brute force to work through. But taken as a whole, three-to-four-hour experience? I wouldn’t say they’re devastating enough to spoil the otherwise immaculate performance of its drill work. Pepper Grinder is still a fun, novel and sparky breed of platformer, and one that will regularly make you break out in more smiles than anguished grimaces. Despite its hardships, you’ll still mourn when those credits roll, and if that’s not a sign of a good video game, I don’t know what is.

This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by publishers Devolver Digital.

Source link

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments