Pepper Grinder Review – Crack The Pepper

Rise and grind.

I’m certain no good would come from typing this game’s title into Urban Dictionary, though that doesn’t change the fact that Pepper Grinder is already one of the year’s most slick, outstanding, high seas-adjacent platforming experiences. 

Pepper’s grinder, otherwise known as the big fuck off drill that rests on her arm, is, at first, a catch-all tool used for mashing and dashing alike. Bashing narwhal pirates into a pulp is certainly fun, but using the rotary implement to burrow into the sand, mud, and snow is the game’s absolute selling point. So good is the traversal via drill that it makes any moment you’re exercising traditional platform-hopping a little whelming.

Although it perhaps mirrors Ori’s burrow ability more than anything, it reminded me a lot of controlling the porpoise with purpose Ecco the Dolphin, whose head-first careening through infested waters is bound to be a core memory in the hearts and minds of SEGA kids. It feels as though the drill has a mind of its own as it bores a hole through the earth, pulling Pepper through its wake like a ragdoll. It feels tremendous, and the way the ideal path through is signposted by the buried gems you collect is a stroke of design genius. 

In fact, the level design in general sets a high bar. Although you don’t have vines to swing from like in Donkey Kong Country, bursting skyward with a well-timed rev from the drill provides a similar verticality that lets the team hide secrets and clever nooks just out of view of the screen. It’s reminiscent of the big ape’s adventure right down to the inexplicable floating cannons that fire you off, far beyond the periphery of the screen, to explore unseen wonders. 

Similar to the game’s surface-level Super Mario-like approach to its bare bones story, which is propelled forward by character grunts and enemy attire that suggests they’re overly protective pirates safeguarding their plunder from Pepper, the overworld feels reminiscent of just about any platformer from the nineties. In any other setting Pepper Grinder has a lush, colourful pixel art style that stands out despite the game’s breakneck speed, however its map is paletted with a chalkish charm and is quite crudely scrawled by hand. It’s a striking separation that’s struck between the action and the moments between that prevents Pepper Grinder’s first impression from growing stale. 

There wouldn’t be more than around twenty levels in all, spread evenly enough between a handful of clichéd biomes. Outside of the many mechanics they do introduce, I’m glad the team worked in some clever ways to make each world feel a little different. Dousing magma, found in one of the few volcanic stages, with water to see it become a crust that’s safe for stepping felt particularly inspired. 

There’s a reasonable challenge to be found with the game’s platforming, even if it doesn’t hit the punishing levels found in contemporary titles like Celeste. The boss encounters, however, are not for the faint-hearted, and the nutty escalation of their theatrics is undeniably bloody rad. And though there aren’t a huge number of levels, the pursuit for full completion of the irresistible and often out of reach treasure couples nicely with asserting dominance in the time trials to make Pepper Grinder quite moreish. It only took a few hours to complete the story and hit roughly 60% completion, it’ll be the remaining 40% that’ll really put hairs on the chest. 

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And while there are no skills to unlock per se, Pepper does pick up a trick or two throughout her crusade. By the end, you’ll have swapped your drill bit out for a blunderbuss to end piracy like the Copyright Act of 1968 never could, as well as a literal rocket launcher for clearing your path of debris. Pepper Grinder does an exceptional job of doling out new things to tinker with up until its very last stage. In fact, the game presents a few particularly wild scenes that, without spoiling them, caused a few frame rate plummets that I’d not seen until that point in my ASUS ROG Ally playthrough. 

Although there isn’t a photo mode per se, Pepper Grinder gifts players with a ‘sticker book’ which functions as an arts and crafts mode where you’re able to adhere stickers of any and all things, from Pepper to the plain old wooden crates that litter the scenes. Even if it’s relatively pointless, it can be fun to slap together a few unlikely scenarios. Though it’s the unlocking of the stickers that seems naff. Thumbing thousands of coins into each stage’s Curiosity Shop pachinko machine to pursue a full set of stickers through random chance is a dumb, albeit cute, distraction. Without said machines though, the shop’s only stock would be health bumps and coloured wigs and shawls to make your Pepper your own.

If there’s one thing Pepper Grinder puts at the forefront, it’s the energy conveyed through its attitude, score, and action. There’s a crisp pace that keeps things moving along at a steady clip, and proves again and again through its retro-modern level design that a worthwhile playground goes a long way. 

Conclusion
Pepper Grinder is a rollicking platformer that combines some classic level design with revitalised traversal mechanics akin to Ecco the Dolphin’s nose-first ocean-cruising, except on this occasion the nose is a big, bad-ass drill that makes short work of terra and pirate terrors alike.
Positives
Terrific level design that rewards exploring beyond the screen's limits
Boring through everything with the drill is insanely fun
Lovely juxtaposition between the game's duelling art styles
Negatives
Only a few hours long if you're not chasing full completion
A few performance drops at high-traffic points
8