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Pepper Grinder review – straight-ahead fun with brilliant ideas along the way

Chug through the earth and navigate ingenious levels in this terrific platformer.

Pepper Grinder is one of those 2D platform games with a big idea. And its big idea is brilliant. You’re a tiny character scampering around roomy levels, the camera pulled a good way out, and you have a drill. A drill! You can use it to chug through sand and dirt and emerge with a burst of speed. You can drill enemies until they’re just jaw bones and cute gristle. You can use the drill to power a machine that raises the flag that ends each level. You can use the drill to operate guns, sprinklers, skidoos – you name it. More important than all that, though, Pepper Grinder is a game where the little details matter. And I knew this as soon as I saw the vines.

The vines are introduced pretty early on. They’re tangles of barbed foliage that do damage if you get too close. Fine. Obvious, even. But what I love is that when you drill through sand or dirt that the vines are attached to, they shudder in a delightful, frenetic manner. They shiver with the energy that comes from your drill. The game has noticed this might happen, and so it has been made to happen. Bodes well, if you ask me.

Both these elements – big idea, attention to the little things – define a breezy, ever-changing game that has been a treat for me these last few days. You may have read that Pepper Grinder’s a short game, and it is. But a short game can still outlive your enthusiasm for it, and Pepper Grinder never does.

Here’s the Pepper Grinder trailer.Watch on YouTube

At first, levels are happy to relish the sheer fun of chugging into the ground and then racing through the earth. Areas you can drill through are clearly marked, and they’ll generally have jewels glinted and acting like Mario’s coins, waiting to guide you. Underground, the game is all about uncovering the sinuous racing line: the drill chugs and shudders and you’re always aware of its bite, but you can still arc up and down and move in lazy curves.You can loop back and dive out of the ground and attack someone before diving back underground. Press a button and you erupt with a burst of speed too. It should feel like Jaws, really, the shark attacking and disappearing, but it actually reminds me of sewing. In the early stages – and during one memorable mid-game boss – Pepper Grinder feels like a game in which you’re a sewing needle, dancing in and out of fabric, precise, artful, joyous.

But Pepper Grinder’s also restless, so before long every level is dropping in a new idea. Enemies, little grimace-faced beans with narwhal tusks, start to emerge before taking a hit and expiring. Then some of them get guns, flamethrowers, hover packs, armour. You’ll need to attack some from above, perhaps, or behind. Inevitably, they’re employed as puzzle elements, even in rooms where they spawn in brisk little hordes. It’s one bit of business amongst others.

The hero of Pepper Grinder navigates a loop of dirt with several jagged wheels chugging through it. Lava lurks in the distance.

The hero of Pepper Grinder drives a skidoo between giant trucks on an icy road.

The hero rides a platform up a vertical pole in Pepper Grinder, navigating blasts of flame.

Pepper Grinder. | Image credit: Ahr Ech/MP2 Games/Devolver Digital

So alongside enemies you get grapple points, and then you get gauntlets in which you have to grapple, swing in an arc, jet off with your drill, and then maybe connect with another grapple point, another, a bit of dirt you have to arc through, a final point! Then you get the vines. You start to get guns and other jazz that cobbles onto your drill. Every level has its own ideas, as well as five coins hidden villainously throughout their linked spaces, encouraging you to take risks.

There’s so much in this game that I’ve already forgotten a lot of it, which means that most of this review has been spent paging through my Switch screenshots. Oh gosh, the underground bit where I had to navigate a labyrinth of dirt while avoiding moving wheels covered with spikes! Oh god, the lava sections where I needed to cool the magma before I could then drill through it. The boss which was part chase sequence! The frozen lakes where I needed to drill as fast as I could to move between areas of warmth.

The hero navigates a world filled with flip-gates in Pepper Grinder.

The hero finds a secret room in Pepper Grinder with a golden coin. Below him is the rest of the level with various mushroom-like baddies.

Pepper Grinder. | Image credit: Ahr Ech/MP2 Games/Devolver Digital

The best of these sequences use the drill as both a weapon and a propulsive force. You’re chaining those speed bursts together and arcing and dipping across the screen, barely noticing the chaos you’re causing as you go. At other times, Pepper Grinder can get a bit fiddly: its gauntlets require movement between drilling and grappling, which means triggers and face buttons, which my addled brain couldn’t always handle. There’s a sweet spot between flow and intricacy here, and Pepper Grinder hits it more often than it doesn’t.

Towards the end of the game, Pepper Grinder reveals itself as a student of Half-Life, with a few ideas that are just pure pleasure, pure over-powered joy. Even when it’s all over there are those coins to hunt for and the things they unlock. Then there’s just the details to revel in. There’s an unlock shop where you buy things from capsule machines which are powered by your drill. There’s one level where you’re working through a kitchen and all the baddies suddenly have horrible chef’s implements and swagger around like Swelter from Gormenghast. I’ll always remember Pepper Grinder as the game with the drill – the game that channeled the pure spirit of Drill Dozer. But when I think a bit more, I’ll remember it as a game of jewels, a game made from glittering bits and pieces.

A review code for Pepper Grinder was provided by Devolver Digital.


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