Game Review: “Big Dipper” (Nintendo Switch, Steam PC; Jolly Jinglings Special)

Welcome back to Jolly Jinglings, The Splintering’s celebration of all stars of royal beauty bright.

Today we’re going to pick apart Big Dipper, a visual novel “game” published by Top Hat Studios and developed by Zimno Team for the Nintendo Switch and Steam PC. Why the quotation marks around “game”? Because Big Dipper isn’t a game in any sense. Zero. It is merely an illustrated story told via your gaming hardware. There are no choices for the player to make, and the only inputs available to you will advance the story, back it up, or save your progress. That’s it.

“There’s a lady who’s sure… all that glitters is gold…”

Set in a small Scandinavian town on New Year’s Eve, Big Dipper follows a young man named Andrew who lives on the edge of civilization in a small cabin at the edge of a legendary forest. Despite multiple attempts to cut it down in years past, the locals swear that a massive bear spirit (six meters tall) always appears to defend it. After ten years of calm, the forest is set to be cut down again.

One of the local voices that is warning against felling the forest is a man named Nicolas, or as Andrew calls him, “Pops”, an old fellow who helped Andrew get on his feet when first came into town. Nicolas and Andrew eventually grew very close, so much so that Nicolas sold Andrew the very home he now inhabits near the forest. This suits Andrew well enough, as he’s never been much of a people person, but he’s about to have that isolation challenged.

Pops’ face? You never see it.

Upon returning home that New Year’s Eve, Andrew is attacked by a fetching young woman with a gun named Julia, who has broken into the cabin in Andrew’s absence. It turns out that Julia is Nicolas’ granddaughter, who has been away for several years but still expects for her grandfather to be living in his old home, therefore mistaking Andrew to be a home invader himself. 

Once this little misunderstanding is cleared up and Julia learns that Nicolas is alive, well, but living in a new home across town, both Andrew and Julia find themselves stuck in the cabin due to an unexpected blizzard. With little better to do, the two begin to get to know one another – that Julia has a tendency for sleepwalking, Andrew has a tumultuous history with his estranged mother, and both eventually bond over memories of how their families changed after the loss of a loved one. 

“Julia’s got a gun…”

It’s not worth going into too much additional detail without spoiling the story, which is an endearing love story with some supernatural elements. Almost like a modern fairy tale. Almost. Despite its Scandinavian setting, the artwork is clearly manga/anime inspired. Julia is awfully cute, Andrew is portrayed as slightly effeminate, and that’s it for the players. You don’t actually get to see the face of any other characters (no, not even Nicolas/Pops). 

That said, there’s not much variety in the accompanying visuals considering that so much of the story takes place in a single house. Most screens consist of static talking heads (Andrew and Julia) with a wood cabin interior backdrop. There are very few images where the characters are actually interacting with one another, and some very obvious opportunities for visual storytelling are missed. The most obvious scene was where Andrew and Julia are looking at her grandmother’s drawings on a wall, and the player is given a static image of the characters lying on the floor rather than a shot of the drawings themselves. Even for a short game experience (about 2-3 hours or so), you will likely get bored with the visuals unless you are particularly taken by the design of one of the two main characters. 

The images that made Andrew “gasp in surprise”? You don’t get to see them.

On the sound side, there is no spoken dialogue or voices of any kind. The audio is strictly limited to the accompanying soundtrack, which is… fine. The tunes are mostly made up of acoustic guitar and piano music, which is relatively calm, relaxing, and matches the tone of the story well enough. There are a few moments where it cuts off abruptly before repeating rather than being woven back into itself for a more seamless loop, but these moments didn’t detract from the experience too much. 

One thing that I did find more immersion-breaking, however, was the number of typos and grammar errors in Big Dipper. For a visual novel “game”, I’d expect that there would be extra attention paid to getting the language right, since story is really most of what Big Dipper offers. I eventually stopped counting the number of errors when it became clear that I was destined to go into double digits, but to illustrate the point, the name Nicolas isn’t even spelled consistently as the story progresses (sometimes spelled with an “H” – as in Nicholas). While it didn’t affect the readability in this case, inconsistency in one of the main character’s names shows a marked lack of attention to detail. (This is where I’m certain that people will start counting my own errors in this review)

I can “bear-ly” stand the suspense! (Kill me)

It may be too much to ask for the game to be updated with more artwork, but there’s no reason why the typos and music loops can’t still be fixed. It’s also worth noting that there is no risqué imagery, and other than Julia asking whether Andrew is gay at one point, there isn’t anything that I would describe as “adult content.” 

Overall, Big Dipper is a very flawed, minimally interactive experience, even for a visual novel. However, the most critical part of the experience, the plot itself, was actually pretty good, though. If you’re ever stuck at home on New Year’s Eve without a date, Big Dipper is a fairly cute and endearing romantic story and it may be worth a few bucks and your 2-3 hours to give it go, even if it really is only good for the one playthrough. 

To close this one out, I still don’t completely understand why the title is “Big Dipper.” I have to assume that it’s because the Big Dipper is part of the bear-shaped Ursa Major constellation. It’s still a dumb title, though.

I hope you like the basic aesthetics of this screen, because you’ll be seeing it… a lot.

Thanks for reading!

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