Pepper Grinder Preview: Pilot Holes

Out of all of the powers in Ori and the Will of the Wisps, my favorite was the one that allows the persistent spirit to burrow through the earth. It arrives late in the game and left me wanting more time to spend with it, even if the ability is squiggly and is flawed in its execution. Pepper Grinder’s central gameplay mechanic is much like that, but it takes those concepts and drills into it more and makes it enjoyable. After drilling into three levels of Pepper Grinder, I dig what developer Ahr Ech is building.

The demo starts with Pepper washed up on a beach, greeted by a masked swordswoman hauling away our heroine’s treasure trove. She gives chase, but the foe outwits Pepper on a rope bridge, sending Pepper tumbling to a cave floor. However, the means of enacting revenge is now in hand – the super tool called Grinder.

The controller pulses as I pull the right trigger and fire up the newfound drill. A few feet away, a handful of exposed gems usher me to excavate them from the cave wall, but I can’t chisel much further. However, when I dig into softer swaths of dirt, Pepper is pulled behind Grinder and the locomotion of the drill takes over. It’s challenging to handle at first. I can guide the direction it takes me, but there’s no stopping it while the tool tastes soil. Breaching the surface brings control back to Pepper but also causes her to leap into the air like a dolphin from the ocean. Discovering this, I began understanding how this abstract platformer sets itself apart in a well-established genre.

Throughout the short demo, Pepper Grinder doesn’t just introduce its core mechanic but teaches increasingly advanced techniques and tests what I’ve learned at a rapid clip. Once I get a handle on controlling Pepper’s tunneling, I find out how to boost my speed, expanding my reach on increasingly difficult jumps to other patches of earth. The second level throws more obstacles my way, with twisting bramble informing my path to emerge on the other end of a treacherous corridor safely.

Environmental hazards aren’t the only thing standing in Pepper’s way. Goofy little guys called Narlings infest the world and can cruise through the dirt as well as I can. After being damaged by their piercing horns, I have to reconsider a frontal assault. As if I’m in an aerial dogfight, I dig into a position on their six and dispatch them with the business end of the drill. The final level introduces explosive mines and flipping platforms puzzles that, when used in tandem, give my brain a jumpstart that pure platforming doesn’t offer. These incremental hurdles make finding ways to traverse each map satisfying.

Pepper Grinder builds on the fundamentals I’ve adapted to and adds entertaining twists. Bodies of water might not be an ideal substance for Pepper to maneuver in, but skimming the top of the water blasts her forward as she hangs on for dear life. Grinder doesn’t only offer a wild ride; it can activate elevators and doubles as an absurdly over-qualified key turner when confronted with locked doors. 

With the gold and jewels I collected delving through the demo, I found the opportunity to spend my riches on a pair of capsule machines. One provides bonus health pips, and the other coughs up various figurines to collect. While these aren’t exciting rewards for all my treasure gathered in each stage, at least there’s something to sink my hard-earned cash into. Hopefully more substantial rewards will be available in the final release.

My time with Pepper Grinder was over in no time, but what I played over about thirty minutes was a blast, and it’s apparent the foundation is in place for what could be a unique platformer. I can’t wait to rev up Grinder again when the full game releases on Switch and PC in 2024.

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