Paris. London. Milan. Kyoto? That’s right; while fashion industry hotshots and hopefuls tuned in to expos and trade shows in the Big Three, for many others, 2017’s haute couture highlight was delivered in a Nintendo Direct from the heart of Kansai: the announcement of New Style Boutique 3: Styling Star. Syn Sophia’s Style Boutique series (known as Style Savvy in North America) has already delivered two runway hits on the 3DS, with New Style Boutique/Style Savvy: Trendsetters in 2012 and New Style Boutique 2: Fashion Forward in 2015, and now this charming fashion sim is back in the spotlight with Styling Star. With fresh looks, fresh faces, and a fresh angle on fashion in the music industry, New Style Boutique 3: Styling Star is a knockout — a must-play for fashion fans and well worth a look for any 3DS owner.

When Styling Star starts up, you’ll create your female avatar and quickly find yourself on a train, en route to visit your uncle Tim who runs a boutique (“Timorrow”) in the city. As the boutique’s stock and his customer’s comments show, Tim isn’t actually the most fashion forward individual, and he’s also a bit too footloose and fancy free to be tied down by his store. So, putting his hope in the next generation, he hands over the keys and the business to you, and jets off to parts unknown. Left in charge of the boutique (which can thankfully be renamed!), it’s up to you to hire an assistant and build up stock, customers, and cachet — perhaps even partnering up with the new talent agency in town, NIN10 Pro Productions. After Fashion Forward’s magically miniature, parallel world premise, Styling Star’s setup seems downright tame, but it’s a perfect fit, and its focus on the music industry — which sees you guiding three up-and-coming NIN10 Pro starlets through their performing careers with the power of fashion — makes for a fantastically fun ride.

To get started, however, all you’ll need to worry about is diving into Style Savvy’s main loop: helping eager customers pick out the perfect clothes. Styling Star jettisons the Animal Crossing-style real-world clock of Fashion Forward, so each in-game day instead lasts around five minutes. In that time, plenty of potential purchasers will stop by your boutique with a fashion quandary and a budget restriction, and working within those two parameters, you’ll need to pick something from your stock to try and sell them on.

A student might need a preppy new coat for her winter classes, for instance, or an office worker might want a lively pop skirt to help her stand out at a party. You might meet a nervous client who needs a bold top to dazzle her fast-approaching date, or a recent college grad who wants to wow her fellow reunion-goers with a chic, mature look. The nuts and bolts of these last two sentences reveal a lot about Styling Star’s basic gameplay: as the parade of pronouns indicates, it’s first and foremost focused on female fashion (men’s clothing does make a return, but it’s unlocked later on and represents a relatively small part of the game), and the array of adjectives testifies to the wide variety of styles that are at the heart of customer requests.

Customers will use key words like ‘lively’, ‘bold’, ‘baby doll’, or ‘boho-chic’ to describe their fashion desires, and it’s up to you to match these descriptors to an article of clothing you have in stock. Adjectives are often associated with specific brands — April Bonbon makes ‘lively’ ‘pop’ clothes, while Stage Dive deals in Hot Topic-style ‘rock’ duds — and you can filter your inventory to quickly see what might match. In fact, thanks to the new ‘Search by order’ button — which essentially narrows your stock down to items which fit the customer’s request — there’s very little guesswork involved. There is, however, a wonderful element of risk-vs-reward in the distinction between telling your client to “Take a look!” or “Try it on!”.

If you present a customer with your recommendation by playing it safe with the “Take a look!” button, they’ll let you know what they think — they might love it and buy it, or they might say they were hoping for something in green instead of blue, or a little warmer for the weather, and ask you to show them something else instead. If you go all out with your enthusiasm and use the “Try it on!” button, however, you’re sending a strong signal about your fashion sense. If they totally love it, they’ll buy it right away, and potentially ask for something else to go with it — a whole outfit to compliment the earrings you picked out, for instance. If they don’t like it, however, they’ll thank you for your time and head out, without buying your suggestion or giving you a second chance. If you know you have something they’ll like, it always pays to “Try it on!”, since your conviction could net you a further sale and more cash for your shop. It’s when you’re not sure, however, that things get interesting; waiting with bated breath to see whether you’ve managed to convince a customer that the €200 butterfly bracelet you’ve picked out is worth the deviation from her €150 budget is surprisingly nerve-wracking — and incredibly satisfying if you can pull it off.

If enthusiasm is one essential part of moving stock in Style Savvy, stocking up is the second, and keeping your shop full of the latest fashions is made especially easy in Styling Star. The Exhibition Hall — the wholesale warehouse where brands sell to boutique owners like you — is open round the clock, 365 days a year, and new brands will move in as you raise your Stylist Rank by helping customers in the shop. This is par for the course for the series, but your buying ability has levelled up substantially in Styling Star thanks to the new “I’ll just stock up!” option in the boutique. Now, when a customer gives you a request, instead of either saying “No problem!” or “Sorry…”, you can choose this response to tell them to wait right there as you nip across the street to grab something to fit the bill.

At first, we were worried that this newfound freedom might take too much of the challenge away from making a sale. After all, some of our most memorable — and least fashionable — transactions in Trendsetters and Fashion Forward came from being able to cobble together an acceptable outfit for a customer with the last dregs we had in stock before making a buy run. And while it’s true that it certainly makes it easier to meet requests, meeting the minimum isn’t what makes Style Savvy so fun and satisfying. The real pleasure of these games is in taking the time to maximise your effort — whether that means spending 10 minutes crafting a truly beautiful combination of clothes, or flirting with fashion disaster to put together the most expensive outfit that technically matches the request — and that’s just as much fun as ever in Styling Star.

It also helps that this latest instalment doubles down on the more creative customer requests, so that for every shopper who needs “a blue blouse” or “a bold skirt”, you’ll have just as many looking for a pair of trousers to match their makeup, or a hat to fit their mood. These puzzle-like requests give you a chance to flex your fashion muscles and think outside the box, and they’re matched by a new style of open-ended requests that let you call some of the shots — such as whether a hopeful nightclub owner should dress all-business or all-rock-and-roll for her meeting with potential investors.

This last example illustrates just one of the many impacts that fashion can have on the world of Styling Star, thanks to this instalment’s focus on the music industry — and it’s a fantastic fit for the series. The three main musicians you’ll help propel through the ranks with your fashion sense are wonderful characters; a scrappy farm girl, an heiress in disguise, and a ‘Mewtube’ streaming sensation all need your help to reach their true potential as performers, and the main beats in their three intertwining careers are the central focus of Styling Star’s story.

Instead of entering runway contests (as in Trendsetters) or putting on fashion shows (as in Fashion Forward), here you’ll use your stylist skills to get these three girls ready for whatever they need — from an outfit for a music video to a disguise to help them live a normal life unnoticed by their fans. Even better, the choices you make can affect their music; one artist’s debut single can be either a cheery pop hit or a shredding rock song depending on the clothes you pick out, for instance, and we love how the story and world show the interplay between music and fashion. The way Styling Star plays off that central theme reminded us quite a bit of another recent music industry romp: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. If TMS was the RPG exploration of the entertainment industry, Styling Star is the fashion sim equivalent, focusing on similar themes of positivity, friendship, and being true to oneself.

In fact, a great deal of the fun of Styling Star comes from the story, the characters, and the writing, which ups the ante from the already delightful Fashion Forward. The inhabitants of Styling Star’s world — from the main three stars to your run-of-the-mill customers — are wonderfully weird, and written with such personality that just interacting with them is a pleasure. The short biographies that appear on each customer’s loyalty card are a particular treat, running the gamut from extremely relatable (“Loves free bread at restaurants”) to sweetly endearing (“Unconsciously repeats important things twice”), and their unique, quirky speech styles make for a memorable, thoroughly charming client base.

As you might imagine, another big part of the fun in Style Savvy is the clothes, and Styling Star offers the best set yet. It boasts over 20,000 individual items, and importantly, there’s a huge variety in styles across the range. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu-style pop that would look right at home in Harajuku; built-to-order high fashion and runway-ready couture; comfortable tie-dye and Indian-inspired designs; colourful kimonos and East-West fusion; baby doll and gothic lolita looks; Burberry prep and H&M-style basics. There’s something for just about everyone here — including men, once again! — and while the brands and styles return from previous games (minus the Sporty style, which has been subsumed into Basic lines), there are also quite a few new clothing types available in this instalment. You’ll find new categories for watches/bracelets and headphones, and plenty of additional options for existing types, like gaucho pants, cap-sleeved blouses, dungarees, long cardigans, and puffed-out tulle skirts.

Of course, there’s more to fashion than clothes, and Fashion Forward’s forays into hair and makeup make a return in Styling Star as well, although they’re less central to the game. As you work through the story and raise your Stylist Rank, making the city more fashionable along the way, you’ll meet new characters who you may be able to convince to open a hair salon and beautician in town. Both of these are fun activities which contribute to your Stylist Rank, and they’re often more challenging than working in the boutique — you won’t have as many specific keywords to go on, requests are usually multilayered, and clients seem a bit pickier in general with what they’ll accept.

The beautician also lets you do nails for the first time in the series, which is a nice addition; they’re not customisable on a fine-grained scale, but the preset designs are creative and fun. It’s worth noting that both hair and makeup are much more peripheral to the experience here than in Fashion Forward, and they don’t feel particularly refreshed from that last instalment, but they’re still fun when you want a break from the boutique. They can also take quite a while to unlock, which can be annoying when you just want to change your own hairdo; we passed several story milestones before we were able to give our avatar a cut we really liked.

Another area of the fashion world to make a return from Fashion Forward is designing, which lets you draw your own emblems and patterns using the touchscreen and apply them to templates, to create everything from custom clothes to the bags used in your boutique. It’s a welcome option that helps extend the fun once you’ve unlocked all the pre-made brands, and it’s also impressively fleshed out; you can upload and swap patterns with other players online in the Design Centre, and scanning in amiibo (or amiibo cards) will net you new Nintendo-themed designs to use in your creations.

Fitting for a fashion series, New Style Boutique games have always been eye-catchers, and while Styling Star is no exception, its presentation is sadly more of a mixed bag than its predecessors’. It still sports the vivid colours and sleek, stylish interface that make the series so immediately appealing, but there’s one serious downgrade: the stereoscopic 3D effect has been completely removed. That’s a shame, both because the two previous games on 3DS made excellent use of the feature, and because it feels lazy in a game which otherwise shows obvious care and polish.

The animation, for instance, is exceptional, and there have been quite a few new personality-filled emotes added in this instalment — it’s a genuine pleasure to watch your customers in action as they tell you about their fashion dreams. The character models have also been improved, with a new soft-focus look that makes them seem almost hand-drawn, and they’re shown off spectacularly when new arrivals to town are introduced with wonderful, dual-screen-spanning cutscenes. Apart from the lack of 3D, our only real visual disappointment is that the stings that accompany successful ‘Try it on!’ recommendations feel like a bit of a downgrade; several styles share the same sequences, and the scenes themselves aren’t as visually exciting as they’ve been in previous titles.

While its good looks are a bit of a given thanks to the fashion focus, Style Savvy has also always impressed with its surprising soundtracks of classy electronica, midtempo lounge, and bossa nova beats. We were hoping for similar musical stylings here — especially with Styling Star’s musical conceit — and we weren’t let down. It starts out strong, with an immediately catchy Katy Perry-style pop theme that we’ve been singing along to ever since, and the songs performed by your aspiring stars throughout the story — lyrical numbers in both English and Japanese — continue that sparkling style to great success. Outside of these performances, the background music that follows you around the city is cast in the classic ’Syn Sophia sound’, with the warm synths, rooftop-ready jazz beats, and shimmering pads we’ve come to know and love. Each brand has their own representative theme in the Exhibition Hall, and important NPCs are accompanied by their own personal playlists, with different songs for different situations; we love the personality that these character themes bring to the soundtrack.

As much as we love the game, the question of where Styling Star ranks in the series’ 3DS releases is more of an open question. With its stronger focus on the boutique, return to a non-real-time clock, and largely linear story, it feels more like a sequel to Trendsetters than it does to Fashion Forward — a feeling reflected in the absence of quite a few features from Fashion Forward. There’s no more dollhouse decoration, no more miniatures, and — saddest of all, in our view — no more colour collecting. Combing the city and taking snapshots to unlock new colours was one of our favourite activities in Fashion Forward, and while the simple unlock system here is certainly more streamlined, it’s also less interesting. The city also feels much less alive than it did in Fashion Forward; apart from the absence of colour hunting, there’s only one area (as opposed to several discrete districts) to explore, far fewer places to visit, and most spots outside the café are only accessible when someone invites you, rather than whenever you feel like getting out of the boutique.

In a similar vein, Styling Star feels much less focused on your own avatar than previous games in the series. In Trendsetters/New Style Boutique, you find yourself at the centre of a Devil Wears Prada plotline; in Fashion Forward, you become the catalyst for a magical town revitalisation and a legendary social butterfly; in Styling Star, for the most part, you serve as a behind-the-scenes superhero for the music industry starlets who take centre stage. These new characters are fantastic, to be sure, and the story is absolutely fun and fulfilling, but it makes for a much less player-centric experience than before. As an example, our photo albums from Trendsetters and Fashion Forward are stuffed with countless selfies of our avatar with major and minor characters, while our Styling Star snapshots are mostly of clever dialogue and musical performances.

None of this, however, it to say that Styling Star isn’t a wonderful game or a worthy successor to its series, because it absolutely is both of those things. There are features we miss from previous games, but for every one that didn’t make the cut, Styling Star adds a new idea to the mix to make up for it. The result is that the 3DS’ three New Style Boutiques don’t represent a simple “good, better, best” evolution; instead, these are three excellent experiences each worth playing for their unique mechanics, feel, and focus.

Conclusion

New Style Boutique 3: Styling Star is a gem of a game, combining fun fashion, addictively creative gameplay, and brilliantly quirky writing into a truly engaging ensemble. A few missteps — including the absence of stereoscopic 3D and a less lively city — means it won’t render its predecessors passé, but we love the unique personality this latest entry brings to the series, applying its trademark fashion-as-magic motif to the music industry with sparkling results. This is a must-play for fashionistas, but you don’t have to be invested in vestiture to see the appeal; no matter your fashion sense, Styling Star is a perfect addition to your 3DS’ winter collection.