When Pepper Grinder finally re-emerged during Indie World last November, long-time followers of the project were no doubt pleased to see some news at last. Indeed the trailer had the drill-based platforming looking as promising as ever, but then trailers never tell the whole story do they? Fortunately, Devolver Digital and Ahr Ech saw fit to bring a demo along to BitSummit 2023, and it too did not disappoint. Actually, “disappointment” is the furthest thing from what this frenetic, puzzle-action treasure hunt inspires.
Grinding through dirt doesn’t sound like it’d make compelling core gameplay, and yet Ahr Ech is making it work in Pepper Grinder. The entire game revolves around swimming through dirt as if it were no more than water, and using one’s momentum to do everything from bursting through walls, to launching enemies, to flinging Pepper across entire rooms. It’s all about using the drill ever more creatively to push through ever more complicated spaces.
Structurally, one cannot help but be reminded of Shovel Knight. In her search for riches and those who robbed her at the start of the game, Pepper will cross an expansive overworld map filled with both critical and secret stages. As players guide her through each, they’ll use the tool of her trade to no only traverse and defeat enemies, but also constantly collect loot and burrow into secret spaces (often filled with even more treasure).
That wealth can then be taken to shops and turned into upgrades for both Pepper and her drill. Even the BitSummit demo featured all of this. Further, players will need to put all their knowledge and skills to work when confronting the game’s boss challenges. Not exactly hugely complex, but what’s here is already feeling like more than enough.
There’s indeed a bit of challenge to be had in Pepper Grinder too, even in the early stages. It’s not enough to just get Pepper into each section of dirt; deliberate care must be taken if one wants to get where they need to go. Playing the demo at BitSummit wasn’t exactly difficult, but there were more than a couple instances where precise angles were needed to progress. These segments were briefly frustrating, but not because they were truly difficult. Rather, it was because they arrested the game’s otherwise addicting feeling of flow.
Guiding Pepper through the dirt (sometimes water) felt almost effortlessly smooth, making every moment spent in the dirt oddly satisfying. So, having to spend any amount of time out of it wound up feeling that much more annoying. It’s a similar kind of flow to the ‘Splosion Man games, except a lot less reliant on precisely-timed button presses. The puzzle element was present in the demo stages too, with those being shown mostly based around knocking barriers out of the way in proper sequence. Such rooms were slower, but were nonetheless satisfying to solve, particularly when they involved flinging enemies around.
Slowing down at times may indeed be for the best, though, since rushing through could cause one to miss the hidden paths, gold coins and other goodies tucked away into the stages’ more inconspicuous corners. If the Steam page highlights are to be believed, it’s likely that one will need some of these hidden treasures in order to fully explore Pepper Grinder’s map. Only one drill bit appeared to be available in the demo too, but there are apparently more to find to unlock as one progresses. In other words, there seems to be plenty of reason to go back once a level has been conquered.
Pepper Grinder is expected to release sometime later this year for PC and Switch, but there’s no solid release window yet. Hopefully we’ll all get to enjoy the full game before too long, but it’s looking like it’s worth waiting a little while longer if necessary.