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Pepper Grinder review – Fast-paced, punishing, pixelated perfection

Pepper Grinder screenshot
Image: Ahr Ech/Devolver Digital

Pepper Grinder is tough. It wants you to be pixel perfect with every button press, combining multiple buttons at once to pull off fancy feats that see you drilling in and out of the ground, flying through the air, grabbing onto handrails, being fired out of cannons and more. All while picking up gems and avoiding deadly obstacles. Good luck, because you’re going to need it.

As punishingly difficult as Pepper Grinder is, though, we love it. This fast-paced pixelated gem combines spelunking and action-platforming and the result feels like something unlike anything we’ve played before. When you’re in the groove, managing to land every jump and avoid every obstacle, you feel like a drill-powered god. The rest of the time? You might feel a bit like a failure. But don’t worry. Simply keep on trying and you’ll eventually nail it.

Each level in Pepper Grinder is fairly short, although each one may take a good few attempts (or more) before you can conquer it. Its first couple of levels lure you into a false sense of security, focusing solely on Pepper Grinder’s drilling mechanics. Hold down your right shoulder button and you’ll hurtle through the ground, popping out of the other side. Press the jump button at just the right time and you’ll fly upwards; time just right and you’ll land perfectly in the next digging spot, allowing you to chain a drill which feels oh-so satisfying.

Don’t get complacent: it doesn’t take long until Pepper Grinder starts throwing more enemies at you, more obstacles, deadly lava pits, explosive bombs, and more platforming manoeuvres you’ll need to pull off. You’ll need to swing around handrails, jumping off at just the right time and in just the right position to land in the next pit, where you can power your drill up and keep moving forward.

Pepper Grinder screenshot
Image: Ahr Ech/Devolver Digital

If you’re not too dexterous, you might struggle a little bit: all while holding forward, you’ll need to push your right shoulder button to power your drill, X to grab on to a handrail and A to propel your jump forward, all at the right moment and in the right order, otherwise you’ll either fall to your death or grind to a halt. And in Pepper Grinder, nothing’s as buzz-killing as grinding to a halt.

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With practice, even the most difficult of movements to pull off in Pepper Grinder will eventually come naturally — as long as you have the patience to keep trying. It’s worth it, though, because when everything comes together, and you can smoothly make your way through a level without barely putting a foot wrong, it feels seriously good.

You won’t just be using your drill in Pepper Grinder to, well, drill, either. It’s also your main weapon, dispatching enemies if you drill them in just the right spot. But you can also use it to pick up keys and twist them into locks, allowing you to progress through a level, and the odd attachment can be picked up, too, like a gatling gun. We have mixed feelings about these instances: while it’s a respite from the rhythmic dance of drilling and jumping through levels, it does forego Pepper Grinder’s main USP to momentarily turn it into what feels like a pretty generic runner-shooter.

Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps not. Even at its worst, Pepper Grinder is still fun. But getting to drop your attachment to get back to what you know best — drilling and picking up endless streams of gems — is always a welcome relief.

Pepper Grinder screenshot
Image: Ahr Ech/Devolver Digital

If its levels aren’t challenging enough for you, each group of them is punctuated by a boss. And it’s these boss fights which will truly test your abilities, as you use everything you’ve learned to take down a huge foe. Drill into their unprotected bellies, dive past their attacks and weave your way through their sprays of bullets. Fail, and you’ll simply try again… and again, and again. But you will be determined to beat each one.

To help you out, you’ll find shops dotted around Pepper Grinder’s map of levels. While permanent upgrades aren’t Pepper Grinder’s style, you will be able to buy temporary hearts — and if you’re finding a level (or a boss) particularly tricky, it may give you the helping hand that you need. There’s little else of use in the shops, though, other than purely cosmetic items and some stickers if you care to fill out an album.

If you revel in a challenge and like the idea of a platforming game that offers something totally different, you’re going to absolutely love Pepper Grinder. When it’s all going right, few games feel as satisfying to play as this: there’s nothing quite like powering up your drill to dive through the ground, popping out to jump through the air before landing into a well-placed drill again. Sometimes it’s perhaps a little too tough, but even when Pepper Grinder’s not at its strongest, we couldn’t pull ourselves away, desperate to eventually succeed.

Pepper Grinder review – GameSpew’s score

This review of Pepper Grinder is based on the PC version, with a code provided by the publisher. It’s available on PC and Switch.
Editor in chief // Kim's been into video games since playing Dizzy on her brother's Commodore 64 as a nipper. She'll give just about anything a go, but she's got a particular soft spot for indie adventures. If she's not gaming, she'll be building Lego, reading a thriller, watching something spooky or... asleep. She does love to sleep.