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Slick new platformer is Shovel Knight with power tools and pirates

Devolver Digital doesn’t miss with its new Steam indie that drills into great platforming, delivering slick action and satisfying stages.

Slick new platformer is Shovel Knight with power tools and pirates: A blue haired, tanned cartoon woman lunges at the camera holding a huge drill

If Ubisoft’s impressive Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown caught your eye last month, you need to keep Devolver Digital’s new indie platformer, Pepper Grinder, on your radar. A 2D side-scroller with all the hallmarks of an excellent addition to the genre, developer Ahr Ech’s pixelated pirate adventure wonderfully blends traditional platforming action with a drilling mechanic that makes traversal feel as much like 1992’s Ecco the Dolphin as it does the brick-breaking adventures of Bandai Namco’s Mr Driller. Beyond that, when it comes to combat and puzzles, this frantic experience feels like the natural evolution of the power tool-fuelled dungeoneering of 2006’s Drill Dozer – a Game Boy Advance great. Sure, that all might sound a little odd, but it works – trust me.

In Pepper Grinder, you play as Pepper the pirate, a shipwrecked scallywag with a penchant for tackling her problems with larger-than-life drilling equipment. Why are you running around with Grinder (that’s the name of the big drill), though? Well, you’re trying to steal back your stolen treasure – in classic pirate fashion.

It’s a rather simple premise for a platform game and Ahr Ech doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on it at first. But, don’t let that dissuade you; there is a mystery here and Pepper Grinder gives you just enough to make you want to solve it.

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As I was only afforded access to the first few levels of Pepper Grinder for this preview, I can’t speak much more on the story Ahr Ech is telling. However, when you jump into this indie game, you’re under no illusion that this is anything but a fun side-scroller. You’re not there to play a story-rich action RPG overflowing with stats and skill trees – even though there is a simple upgrade system in play to incentivize you outside of level completion. You’re there to drill and kill your way through some wonderfully designed levels and – rather simply – enjoy the challenge of the whole experience.

That lightly intriguing narrative you’re met with in the game’s opening moments, the cute stickers you’re tasked with collecting to fill out Pepper’s sticker album (which really is now the only way any pirate should document their adventures going forward), even the temporary health boosts you can buy while you wait for that one drill upgrade to appear in the game’s store – these are all colorful sprinkles atop the delicious cupcake that is this game’s core gameplay experience. That is the real reason Pepper Grinder should be straight on your Steam wishlist, and why I’ve played through the same selection of three levels several times while writing this.

Slick new platformer is Shovel Knight with power tools and pirates: A pixel style game where a blue haired character with a drill digs in yellow material to try and bypass two mines

Whether you’re burrowing through soft sandstone or propelling yourself through swamp water, momentum is key when you’re using Grinder, and the angle at which you eject yourself into the open air from any drill-able material is critical to success. And, when you start drilling into something, you can’t stop. So, with so many environmental hazards and perilous pitfalls to avoid – many of which I find myself quite familiar with after my first run-through – you’re forced to take risks when playing Pepper Grinder.

It’s taking these risks, leaping across open air with reckless abandon in the hope that you can just clip the edge of the next drill-able surface and be saved from a trip back to your previous checkpoint that makes clearing each level – even one you’ve already completed before – even more satisfying than the last. It might feel a little frantic at first, but when everything starts to click and you find your feet with the rhythm of Pepper Grinder, it becomes something quite special.

Slick new platformer is Shovel Knight with power tools and pirates: A pixel game with a blue haired character drilling down into yellow material trying to avoid tangles of vines and cross to another area

You might think I’m being a little bold in claiming that Pepper Grinder is going to be one of the best indie games of 2024 so early into the year. But, it’s hard to imagine another side-scroller implementing such a simple yet unique mechanic quite so well. For a game that focuses so much on tunneling through solid rock, it’s a remarkably fluid experience, and the absurdity of its more complex puzzles makes solving them increasingly more gratifying as you continue to complete them.

It’s never going to be easy to stand out in a genre so saturated with spectacular games, but Ahr Ech’s 2D side-scroller deserves some time in the limelight. If you’re looking for some new PC games to sink some time into, you won’t regret adding Pepper Grinder to your library.