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Pepper Grinder review: Fast-paced and joyous platforming

Pepper Grinder review: Fast-paced and joyous platforming

Digging and diving throughout the landscape

There are moments in Pepper Grinder that make you feel a bit like a speedrunner. The way you move through sections of levels is incredibly fluid and at times, I found myself leaping out of compacted dirt, swerving through the air, and diving into water where I’d kill several enemies with the drill bit on my arms, creating a satisfying chain of quick movements. You play as Pepper, a pirate who is shipwrecked and robbed of all her treasure. She must travel enemy lands, attack them, and steal her riches back.

This is a fast-paced game more often than not and landing certain jumps can feel as rewarding as slaying a boss. You see, everything you do in Pepper Grinder is led by the enormous drill bit that replaces your hands. You use it to dig through parts of the landscape or kill pointy-headed enemies. Later in the game, you can insert it into a gigantic, lumbering mech where you’ll control its movements; there’s also the option to equip a machine gun for some blasting of waves of foes.

Pepper Grinder
Pepper Grinder

It’s this flexibility where the game comes into its own. Without these interchangeable mechanics, the simple act of burrowing through the ground could become a little old. Thankfully, the developer has seen fit to introduce different mechanics with each world you pass through. In one, you’ll find water is introduced, making you move differently to how you dig through dirt; another brings in patches of slime which slow you down and bounce you around within the goop.

On the run-up to release, the developer, Riv, commented that Pepper Grinder is similar to Ecco the Dolphin and this makes a lot of sense. You spend most of your time tunneling through dirt and collecting gems before springing outwards and into another patch, not unlike Ecco jumping from the SEGA blue waves on the Mega Drive.

It’s here that Pepper Grinder shares a lot of retro sensibilities. Dressed up in stunningly gorgeous pixel art, this adventure features no dialogue - all narrative moments are acted out visually - and it has that same ‘pick up and play’ feeling of games from the early 1990s. It’s almost arcade-like, with each level being reasonably short and never outstaying its welcome.

Pepper Grinder
Pepper Grinder

Pepper Grinder also features, perhaps as an homage, some really tricky areas that require some chaining together of different techniques to traverse the world. For example, as well as the drill, you also have access to a grappling hook that can latch onto small yellow hoops. At times, you’ll be leaping from within the dirt, using a secondary button to grapple, before juggling back to the drill button which, on paper, sounds simple, but when it’s a long chain of movements done in quick succession, it can become a finger-fumbling moment of rage.

The same can be said for some of the bosses who become much harder due to the tunneling mechanic being mixed in with diving momentum and thwacking them in sensitive areas to cause them damage. Where Pepper Grinder succeeds is in traversing - the bosses, I could take or leave. I was in my element just zooming around, popping up occasionally, and passing through the unique challenges that could be found. There’s one stage where you’ll be hopping between moving trucks; diving through the dirt in their trailers, grappling onto the rear bumpers, before jumping onto drill-bit controlled motorbikes on the road’s surface. It’s a thrilling and exhilarating section that begs to be played over and over.

Thankfully, there's a reason to return to older levels. Large gold coins can be found in each level and collecting all five will fully complete your progress. These coins are then spent in shops to buy keys that unlock bonus levels, or different hairstyles for our hero. Gems, which are littered throughout can also be spent, on temporary extra health pips that vanish when you get hit, or on stickers that can be applied to sticker pages in the main menu as a slight distraction.

Pepper Grinder
Pepper Grinder

These shops are a cherry on top of an already pretty sweet cake. Pepper Grinder reminds me a lot of Celeste, one of my favourite games of all-time. They both feature quick reaction-based forms of platforming, they’re equally beautiful in pixel form, the soundtracks are delightful, and they each challenge the player to move with a fluidity that dishes out dopamine until you’re grinning from ear to ear. I couldn’t get enough.

The campaign can be cleared in under eight hours, but you’ll most definitely go back to your favourite levels simply to experience them all over again. While the bosses did frustrate me at times, I can’t deny they’re brilliantly designed from a visual standpoint, and the same can be said for the creatures of Pepper Grinder who all seem to be big, goofy, lovable scamps, even when they’re trying to kill you. In one level, you interact with a giant blue creature and, without spoiling it, is a highlight of the game.

Pepper Grinder is a great example as to why I love indie games as much as I do. They’re odd, and daring, and seem to create these wacky concepts that wouldn’t be found elsewhere. This makes them memorable and I know that come year’s end, I will still be talking about and recommending this game.

Pros: Jaw-dropping pixel art with thoroughly engaging traversal mechanics and a unique sense of both humour and joy

Cons: Controls can be fiddly during boss fights

For fans of: Celeste, Sonic the Hedgehog, Retro platformers

8/10: Excellent

Pepper Grinder is available for Nintendo Switch (version tested) and PC. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a complete guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.

Featured Image Credit: Ahr Ech

Topics: PC, Steam, Nintendo Switch, Retro Gaming, Indie Games