One of the big un-talked-about hazards of sailing is the dangers of a stray cyclops. One moment Pepper is floating happily along with her ship full of treasure, the next it’s been sunk by a careless cyclops right off the coast of a strange island. While the nearby shore helps with survival, reclaiming the lost treasure after it’s stolen by Mint, the leader of a band of Narlings, is going to be more difficult. Luckily Pepper gets a hold of a drill from a mining camp, and revving it up with chainsaw roar sets her on the path to get back her gold.
It’s been a while since the last round of Pepper Grinder, which initially made its public debut waaaaaay back during PAX East 2017. Officially revealed as a Devolver Digital-published title last November, it’s finally getting closer to its sometime-in-2024 release window as the years of polish and design-work have pushed it closer to completion. The latest demo is three levels of fast-paced drilling platforming with each one introducing new mechanics and set-pieces, and a sticker book for when a break is needed from tearing through the Narlings.
While technically an action-platformer, the bulk of the action comes from drilling through the earth. Pepper’s drill Grinder allows her to practically swim through ground, but once she starts moving there’s no stopping until she comes out the other side. Exiting the earth is done at full speed, allowing Pepper to rocket through the air to either reach the next patch of dirt or finally land for a moment’s safety. She’s also got a short dash that’s especially useful when triggered right before surfacing, sending Pepper flying to difficult areas that probably have at least a few bonus gems.
The level design is built to take full advantage of the drill in a number of ways, with a good number of props that all react differently. Drill-powered elevators are great for reaching higher ground, but can be blocked by gates that Pepper can tear open if she can find a way to hit it from the right side. Water isn’t a particularly drill-friendly medium, but it does allow it to act as a weak propeller, unless you angle just right to skip across the surface at high speed. Not available in the bit I got to play but showcased in the old trailer, you can even find the spinning barrels of a chaingun for some run & gun action later on. And of course cracked rock walls hide secrets, so long as you don’t get too distracted by staying in the level’s flow to look out for them.
The main goal of Pepper Grinder is to collect Pepper’s lost loot, so gems and coins are kicking around everywhere and almost impossible to pass by without at least trying to grab every one. Each level also has five big gold coins hidden in odd places, or possibly worse, sitting in plain sight across a particularly epic jump or field of hazards. The reward for snagging every coin and collectible you find is being able to purchase stickers at a gacha machine, and between levels you can create your own little scenes while trying to avoid admitting how entertaining it is when you realize a slug can also double as a particularly swoopy hairstyle. It’s an odd bonus toy that can bring out the five year old in you surprisingly quickly. For a more traditional gaming challenge, though, the time-attack targets should inspire some creative speed-running.
Pepper Grinder was worth getting excited for back in its 2017 version and it’s only gotten better over the years of development. Each of the three levels I got to play had great variety in the design, with no two spaces able to be confused for each other, and the drill mechanics are nicely responsive while needing a careful hand for areas that require precise targeting. The slugs and Narlings of the early areas go down easy so long as you don’t plow into them, but landing that single hit to dispatch them can require a bit of care when they start pulling out the guns. Reclaiming Pepper’s treasure is going to take her from one end of the island to the other with each level bringing its own challenges and set-pieces, and while there’s still a wait to see how it all comes together, Pepper Grinder has absolutely nailed its gameplay feel in every new outing since its initial debut.