When it comes to point-and-click adventures, I would not put rhyming, ASCII art and baking very high on the list of the most important ingredients. The Pepper Prince: Seasoning 1 does just that and, while the title promises a sprinkling of bad puns on top of that, developer Hypnotic Owl is on track to cooking up something delicious.
The Pepper Prince was first thought up in a game jam project. Although that was more of a clicker game, it already featured a very similar style and story-wise, it functions as a prequel. You can play the free prologue right in your browser. The game on Steam now is a more classical point-and-click adventure. It follows an episodic release schedule and the first of five episodes is available now.
It is set in a familiar fairy-tale world. The prince is getting married and it falls upon the player to prepare the wedding cake. You take on the role of either Hansel or Gretel, who apparently get along with the gingerbread witch and help out in her bakery. While these sound like the perfect ingredients for a new King’s Quest or Discworld clone, developer Hypnotic Owl uses very simple ASCII art instead of hand-drawn imagery and animations.
This doesn’t make for the best screenshots and I was sceptical just looking at the Steam page, but once I got going, I hardly noticed at all. The reduced graphics actually have an advantage, as my imagination kicked in and filled in the blanks. In a way, playing The Pepper Prince feels a bit more like reading a book.
Where it shines most is in creating a magical, fairy-tale world. Having all the dialogues rhyme doesn’t distract; it conveys a sense of wonder and quirkiness and doesn’t hit you over the head with crude jokes and endless puns. Expect small chuckles and a warm feeling in your tummy instead. The Pepper Prince wants to delight you while you escape the real world for a moment. You can easily play an episode in one sitting, with each taking around an hour to finish.
Unlike the graphics, though, the controls have been very much updated: no typing in commands and not even endless verb-item combinations to click through. Instead, you quickly navigate through the ASCII town via arrows on the edges of the screen. All the clickable characters and items have the same colour, which avoids any dreaded pixel hunting.
Instead of a classic inventory, The Pepper Prince features a journal. Not only does it keep track of the items you have collected, but also all the quests you are currently on. And the list grows fast. The main mission is to find the ingredients for the cake. You are free to do that in any order, so you can explore the map quickly and meet all the quirky characters. It rarely makes you overcome obstacles to progress to another area — the few times it does it is quite surprising and feels rewarding.
The journal also functions as the main game mechanic. It lets you ask a person about any of your items or quests. In the same way, you can combine items with structures in the world. Usually this is pretty clever in that it doesn’t matter if you select a quest or a corresponding item. If you have all the necessary parts, the game doesn’t punish you for choosing anything in the wrong order.
The puzzles are mostly simple fetch quests, bringing an item from A to B. I understand that The Pepper Prince deliberately doesn’t want to be tricky with complex systems — it just wants to delight. However, I still wish the puzzles were a bit more imaginative. They could delight as well without raising the difficulty level.
Do the story and writing make up for the simple puzzles? Not quite yet. With this being the first episode, you would think that there is a strong narrative to pull you in from the start. Instead, it wants to set the scene. The dialogue’s whimsical nature and the amusing swipes at fairy-tale tropes have to do all the work. Fortunately, the writing never goes full Shrek and avoids countless pop culture references. The ending of the first episode promises to bring some drama to the mix, and hopefully spices up the rest of the seasoning — I am definitely up for another taste of it.
The first episode of The Pepper Prince: Seasoning 1 is available now on PC via Steam.