Like high-waisted shorts or the reemergence of leg warmers, some things just come out of nowhere. Syn Sophia's New Style Boutique was a similarly surprising success when it hit the 3DS runways in 2012, giving the fashion sim genre a real gem. After a few seasons off it's back for another appearance (in Europe at least) with this sequel, Nintendo Presents: New Style Boutique 2 - Fashion Forward. A wonderful game that expands on its predecessor in nearly every way, this is a must-play for fashion fans and absolutely worth a look for any 3DS owner.
New Style Boutique 2 takes a rather more fanciful approach to fashion than its predecessor, by situating the whole experience within an appealing Alice in Wonderland-style frame. The game opens with a letter from your grandmother, who's left you the key to a tiny, mysterious door. On opening it, you meet a pocket-sized girl named Sophie, whose grandmother apparently used to play with your own - on Sophie's side of the door - in a fashion-forward town called Beaumonde City. One trip over the threshold later, you emerge - after creating a female avatar using an extensive character customization tool - in the Beaumonde of today, which sadly seems to have lost its passion for fashion since your grandmother's days. Sophie, as it turns out, runs a struggling boutique in town, and quickly enlists your help in running it; by extension this has the aim of rekindling the magical city's love of fashion.
In your quest to restore Beaumonde City to its former fashion glory days, the main gameplay in New Style Boutique 2 revolves around working in and managing your new shop by picking stock, tending to customers and putting together outfits. Each customer will come with a special request and a spending limit and, working within their tastes and budget with the stock you have on hand, you'll come up with a recommendation - ranging from a pair of socks to an eight-piece outfit - and hopefully seal the deal.
The clothes themselves are fun and incredibly varied, with dozens of fictitious brands like Marzipan Sky, streetflow, and AZ-USA each specializing in a particular style, from preppy, pop and edgy to upscale, girly, and goth. There are 19,000 pieces in total, so no matter your personal taste you're bound to find several (thousand) to love; though most are returning favourites from from the previous game, the new additions look great. You'll keep your boutique stocked by stopping by the Exhibition Hall's wholesale outlets, with available items changing daily and new brands setting up shop as you play. You can customize your shop just how you like it as well by changing the interior theme, façade and outside signage, item placement, window displays and mannequins, and even the background music; all of these options - along with the brands you stock - will affect the clientele you'll attract.
As New Style Boutique 2's main gameplay loop, this sales process is surprisingly addictive. Choosing outfits is a satisfying balance between creativity and clue-following, and coming up with a perfect pick is an "Aha!" experience akin to a well-timed "Objection!" in Ace Attorney. There's some risk/reward involved as well, as you've got two distinct options for presenting your picks to customers: "Take a look" and "Try it on!". The softer "Take a look" lets them tell you what they think before you commit to the choice, and gives you up to three attempts to fix it before they walk away, while the emphatic "Try it on!", only available on a first try, is an all-or-nothing gambit; if they love it, they might end up asking to buy more, but if they don't they'll head out then and there. Occasionally you'll be able to talk your way out of ill-received recommendations, with one of several dialogue options being the ticket to a sale depending on the customer's personality - a great touch that makes for fun last-ditch efforts.
Though there have been lots of thoughtful little tweaks to the system, the sell-stock-repeat loop was the heart of the original New Style Boutique as well, and what makes this sequel so impressive is how much it expands the definition of 'video game fashionista'. Now, along with managing your shop and selling outfits, you'll also be able to cut clients' hair, do their makeup, and even design your own clothes.
Each of these is a fashion career (and enjoyable in-game activity) in its own right. For hair styling, for instance, you'll chat with a customer before you clip, finding out why they're getting their hair cut (going to the beach with friends, or a fancy restaurant work party?), what they like or don't like (straight or curly? medium or long? bangs or no?), and any other preferences or relevant personality quirks they might have. For makeup, clients will hand you a photo for reference, and you'll have to do your best approximation of the eyeshadow, lipstick, blush, mascara and more using a satisfyingly skeuomorphic touchscreen makeup kit. And in designing clothes, you'll be able to combine cuts, fabrics, patterns and colours to form your own unique creations, and even brand them with a hand-drawn logo. Runway shows make a return as well, and they're better than ever. Now not only do you get to choose the outfit, hair, and makeup to enter into these themed contests, you also have the option of modeling them yourself, using real-time button presses to perform poses and add effects as you cross the catwalk.
All of these new options are engaging in their own way, and while you're likely to find a few favourite - we found hairdressing particularly fun - being able to bounce between so many different ways to climb the fashion ladder is a wonderful thing. But one of the best bits of New Style Boutique 2 is that even when you don't feel like advancing your fashion career, there's still plenty to do. Beaumonde City is divided into six main areas, with plenty of people to talk to and places to visit in each district, and there's always something going on; the game uses a real-life clock, ala Animal Crossing, but unlike the sleepy sylvan villages of New Leaf, Beaumonde never rests. Whether it's taking tea in the rose garden, sipping coffee in the café, or checking out air-guitar rock concerts at the club, you'll never be short on relaxing pursuits that exist just for the sake of fun.
There were similar activities in the first New Style Boutique, of course, but there are lots of new, deeper pastimes to lose yourself in in the sequel, including one of our favourites: colour collecting. When you're dying hair or doing makeup, you won't initially start out with a full palette of colours. To go beyond your starter set you'll need to actually discover the other colours in and around the city by taking pictures in different locations (with a quick press of the 'Y' button) and showing them to a woman named Iris. Snap a selfie in the café, for instance, and you'll uncover the 'Roasted Coffee' shade, while a trip to the rose garden can net you 'Mint Tea', 'Green Ivy', or 'Dark Brick', depending on the time of day and how you frame the shot. It's a great meta-minigame that encourages you to really explore the city and make good use of the snap-anywhere camera, and it also plays directly into the main modes: once Iris has worked her magic, you can use your new colours in the hair salon and makeup studio whenever you like.
Another new addition comes directly out of the Wonderland conceit: the Caprice Chalet. In this house on the east edge of town, you can decorate dollhouse rooms from the ground up, Happy Home Designer-style, using miniature furniture you'll find throughout Beaumonde. It's neat in and of itself, with a user-friendly touchscreen interface, but the real fun comes when the magic kicks in: each room you design in the dollhouse will be mirrored exactly in one of Caprice Chalet's real-life, life-sized rooms. These suites are massively customizable, so while you'll start out building bedrooms, as you acquire more miniatures (they're a common gift from grateful customers) you'll be able to create cafes, restaurants, and functioning stores with the Chalet, and even rent out rooms for a little extra income. It's surprisingly easy to get lost in this mode, and miniature-collecting easily rivals colour-hunting as Fashion Forward's most addictive mini-game.
It's worth noting that, as in the original New Style Boutique, all of these features are doled out rather slowly. Hair and makeup options only unlock after several hours of play, for instance, and colour collecting, fashion shows and modeling come much later after that. It's a slow burn, but it actually works very well in context; new activities become available at a comfortable rhythm as you live your life in the town, and the steady stream of unlocks means there's always something new to do and look forward to, even after dozens of hours. These unlocks are also implemented in an appealingly organic way, through story events unfolding around the city, rather than the filling of the appealingly shiny but largely arbitrary Happiness Crystal of the previous game.
One complaint we had with the original New Style Boutique was that it was almost too easy to satisfy customer requests. A focus on keywords and a hyper-helpful search function meant that as long as you had an item your customer wanted in stock, you'd be sure to find it. While that's still mostly the case here, the 'advanced' orders - where indecisive patrons will leave their fashion fates up to you, or ask you to create an outfit to pair with a piece of clothing they already own - appear more frequently in New Style Boutique 2, and the new hair styling and makeup options feel like 'hard mode' versions of the same concept, with clients giving general guidelines instead of explicit instructions.
Another potential downside to this sequel - and a step back on the catwalk from the previous game - is the removal of men's fashion. New Style Boutique let you stock men's clothing for a smaller number of male customers who would come by the store, but in this sequel your clientele are exclusively female. In truth, it's not a noticeable loss; men's clothing felt like more of an add-on than a main feature in New Style Boutique, and we're happy to see the sequel focus in on its forte: female fashion. This new iteration also features a notably more diverse cast of characters, with Beaumonde's residents and professionals representing a welcomely wide variety of skin tones.
As a game that's all about fashion, New Style Boutique 2 certainly looks the part; the presentation is outstanding, with crisp, clean graphics polished to a sheen. The animations are particularly well done, and though they repeat relatively often - you'll notice a lot of customers performing identical cute-claps, for instance - they're always endearing. The graphical style is a bit less subdued than the original New Style Boutique, but it works wonderfully; Beaumonde is a vibrant place, and the expanded colour palette helps it stand out even more. The stereoscopic 3D effect adds a lot, especially in giving the world an on-theme diorama feel, and each of the animated cutscenes uses a different fashion-friendly motif, like papercraft or fabrics, to create an appealingly eclectic mix.
As in the previous New Style Boutique, the soundtrack is a standout, with catchy, spacey synth melodies lilting over bright-eyed bossa nova beats. It reminds us of a subtler, instrumental take on Katamari Damacy, or a lost collection of Wii U eShop music, and it's absolutely fantastic. There's no voice acting, but Fashion Forward benefits instead from excellent writing that gives it an immense sense of personality. Incidental dialogue is often offbeat, cheeky or silly, and main characters and customers alike strike an incredibly likable three-way balance between quirky, goofy and cool. It's also impressive just how much each shopper stands out; after over 100 served, we still remember Delfina as the girl who's "never lifted anything heavier than a violin", and Casimira as the tragic soul who "fell in love with a comic book character".
More than anything else, New Style Boutique 2's presentation stands out for its unrelentingly upbeat attitude. Without ever being sappy - again thanks to the sharp, subtly witty writing - every interaction in the game is refreshingly positive for all parties involved, and it's amazing how much of a difference that makes; the fact that it will always leave you smiling is a big part of why Fashion Forward is so much fun to pick up and play.
Finally, like any good fashionista, New Style Boutique 2 is seriously well-connected, and takes advantage of nearly ever 3DS feature in the book. There's SpotPass connectivity for new clothing (expect Splatoon and Happy Home Designer tie-ins if the Japanese schedule is anything to go by), StreetPass for swapping profiles and Caprice Chalet room designs, online room sharing using Dream Suite-style codes, and a local multiplayer option that lets you visit a friend's town and explore, take pictures, and even haggle for stock.
There's also Nintendo Image Share integration for tweeting and tumbling your in-game snapshots, and a feature-rich AR photo mode for bringing your creations to life. Miiverse is used to hold in-game contests - both user-created and official Nintendo-sanctioned events - with players uploading pictures of outfits matching a certain theme, and the winner determined by number of "Like"s. The amiibo integration lets you unlock clothing based on different Nintendo characters by tapping a figure and fulfilling a customer's request, with the shopper's in-game model based on the Mii of the amiibo's owner; in an especially nice related touch, friends from your 3DS' Friends List will also show up in the shop from time to time, with models based on their Miis.
It's a dizzying array of connectivity features, but more importantly each really adds something to the game. Along with the real-time clock and calendar, all these social activities give you plenty of reasons to come back to Beaumonde on a regular basis, and thanks to the slow-but-steady unlocks and huge variety of things to do, that's how Fashion Forward really shines.
Cool, confident, and charming, New Style Boutique 2 is a knockout. If you're at all into fashion, this is a must-play, and even if you're not it's well worth dropping in to check out everything Beaumonde City has to offer - this is a deep, engaging sim with the looks, brains and fun to entertain just about anyone. Trust us, go ahead and "Try it on!"