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Pepper Grinder review

 Pepper leaping into the air with her drill in Pepper Grinder.
Pepper leaping into the air with her drill in Pepper Grinder.

Need to Know

What is it? A hectic platformer where you travel via pneumatic drill.
Release date March 28, 2024
Expect to pay TBA
Developer Ahr Ech
Publisher Devolver Digital
Reviewed on ROG Ally, Gigabyte G5
Steam Deck Verified
Link Official site

Poor Pepper. She’s the star of Devolver Digital’s new platformer, but she would be laughed off the stage at the Annual Platforming Protagonist Awards. Not that she’d have much luck leaving that stage unassisted. Pepper’s hobbled with a pathetic jump, a mediocre little hop that can barely get her a few feet off the ground. So it’s a stroke of good fortune that she’s rammed her arm into a drill attachment that can send her swimming through dirt, then use her momentum to burst out and fly through the air.

Well, maybe less ‘good fortune’, more ‘mixed blessing’ and perhaps even ‘get this damn monkey’s paw off of me’. It turns out that having a drill for an appendage can actually be quite cumbersome. Pepper drills through dirt a little faster than you’d like, demanding quick reflexes to move in something close enough to the direction you wanted to go, or at least a route that ideally doesn’t end in certain death. This is all completely by design, of course, and gradually mastering such a joyously unwieldy method of navigation makes for a terrific little platformer.

Cumbersome as it can be, the drill is a delight to use, with excellent rumble feedback. This is an absolute must-play with a controller, unless you own a vibrating keyboard (why do you own a vibrating keyboar… actually, I’d rather not know). Swimming through dirt feels great, as does introducing enemies to the sharp spinny end of your new toy. Comparisons to Game Boy Advance cult classic Drill Dozer are obvious, but it actually plays more like that same console’s Donkey Kong: King of Swing. That game was all about carefully timing swings to reach higher ground. Pepper Grinder plays a bit like this, if you were playing King of Swing with a dodgy emulator that quadrupled the game’s speed.

To exit a swing you need to trigger the drill, sending Pepper skyrocketing. Levels soon become an acrobat’s nightmare of perfectly executed chains of swinging, drilling, and hurtling yourself around. There’s even a speed boost that’s tragically mandatory to execute some of the more distant jumps. Pepper has four slivers of health that can disappear in the blink of an eye and a tiny window of invulnerability after taking damage. Thank Christ there’s no lives system and mostly generous checkpointing, so this tricky platformer usually lands on the right side of challenging/frustrating. When you pull off a long, unbroken run of platforming it gives you a similar sense of triumph to racing through a 2D Sonic level without dropping a single ring, except your success here feels much more skill-based.

Pepper Grinder breaks up this demanding platforming by offering you gloriously silly extensions to your drill arm. You’ll occasionally find a gun with infinite bullets that turns the game into Gunstar Heroes with the cheats on. Even those sections play like Elden Ring compared to the giant mech suit that lets you smash through all the scenery. At first these sections feel like payoffs for surviving this far, a few seconds of cathartic, brain-off destruction. But later levels weave these gadgets elegantly into the challenge, taking advantage of how vulnerable Pepper is without them by contriving circumstances that keep separating you. A few minutes of panicky, tough platforming are all the better for being punctuated with another go inside the mega death mech.

Pepper burrowing through dirt in Pepper Grinder.
Pepper burrowing through dirt in Pepper Grinder.

(Image credit: Ahr Ech)

It’s constantly throwing novelties like this at you, never feeling like it's cynically padding out the run time with filler.

There’s a grassy area, lava area, ice area… hey, wake up! True, these are amongst the most tired locations in platforming history, but there’s enough visual variety and quirks to keep things interesting. Like a level full of friendly giants assisting you, where you at one point have to drill through one of their heads (despite being a Devolver Digital game, this is actually a lot less gross than it sounds). The platformer standard water level is livened up considerably by having goons on fragile boats that you sink one by one with your spinning drill leap-attacks. It’s constantly throwing novelties like this at you, never feeling like it's cynically padding out the run time with filler.

There are some minor issues. It crashed on me a few times and one boss froze in place on two separate attempts, presumably intimidated by how well I was playing (the first time it froze I celebrated by drilling myself into a hole and dying, so perhaps not). Nothing a few patches can’t fix of course. One missing UI element that teaches you how to swing has already been patched in, so these fixes might even already be in the game by the time you read this. Maybe a few more checkpoints wouldn’t go amiss either, as some of the late-game levels boot you back far enough to have me fantasising about introducing the drill to the developers backsides, but now I’m just being childish. And creepy. Er, sorry.

Pepper diving through the air in Pepper Grinder.
Pepper diving through the air in Pepper Grinder.

(Image credit: Ahr Ech)

It’s not a long game—it took me five hours to see the credits—but it’s generous with ideas right up to those credits.

Replayed levels have time trial trophies, a good way to test your navigation skills under pressure, though I suspect watching a speedrunner glide through this game will depress me enough to put my fingers in a retirement home. There are five collectable coins to be discovered in each level and I like that if I find one and then die later on, the game doesn’t pointlessly punish me by making me collect it again. Amongst other rewards, these coins unlock a few bonus levels, adding a little longevity. There’s a sticker album you can gradually fill out if you want to make your own little Pepper Grinder dioramas, and you can buy different haircuts and capes, but these are throwaway extras.

Which is honestly fine! It’s not a long game—it took me five hours to see the credits—but it’s generous with ideas right up to those credits. Pepper Grinder is a short, sweet treat, a good idea executed with great energy. If you’re looking for a 2D platformer built to last, get Rayman Legends. If you’re up for a faster, leaner platformer, crammed with memorable moments (Pumpkin carving! An homage to King Kong! An absolute pig of a final boss!) Pepper’s thrilling drilling adventure is well worth a spin.