The best thing about the newest New Style Boutique isn’t the cute outfits or the glamourous fantasy. It’s that it makes you feel good about helping people.
New Style Boutique is a series of games about running a boutique. In them, you have to stock a store and then sell clothing to customers. It’s your responsibility to make sure you keep a good supply of the game’s fictional brands, which range in style from frilly and girly to punk to incredibly expensive high fashion. Styling Star is the newest game in the series, and it changes the formula in a few ways.
In previous games, you’d compete in a series of fashion contests until you were declared the best stylist. Styling Star removes those contests, and instead, after you’re gifted a boutique from your uncle Tim, you end up being a stylist for three up and coming pop stars. Not only do you shape their looks, your choices as stylist end up determining what kinds of songs they’ll sing. Will fresh-off-the-farm Rosie go with her familiar girly look or turn into a rocker? Will heiress Yolanda be refined and feminine or sassy and bold? My favorite character, the nerdy Alina, has to choose between the day-glo coloured “Lively” style and an elegant gothic lolita look. Depending on the looks you choose, these characters will sing different songs at their live performances.
Having more direct control over a series of narratives, complete with musical performance interludes, gives Styling Star a surprising amount of narrative weight. It’s always fun to dress people in cute outfits, but Styling Star helps you see how these fashion choices affect their lives. It’s not just Rosie, Yolanda and Alina either. Repeat customers to your shop will be wearing the last outfit they bought there. Over time, I felt like I was building a rapport with certain characters.
Judy, for example, first came to my shop wearing the “Bold” style—think a lot of leopard print and leather. As she came again and again, she started asking for more rocker looks. By the time winter was over, she looked completely different, with a red spiky haircut and plaid trouser. She’s not a real person, but I kind of got to know her, and over the course of the game she actively changed.
The characters who visit your boutique aren’t characters with defined narratives, either. They’re randomly generated women who show up with just a name, brief description of their personality, and generic request. After seeing some of these characters day after day, they start to feel familiar. I decided to talk to Harue instead of another customer because her description of her said, “only steps on escalators with her left foot.” More recently, a woman named Sharla started coming by. Her description read “good friends with an owl.” What’s her story? I won’t really ever know, because there’s nothing more to her than just that sentence. It’s still fun to imagine her visiting her owl friend in whatever clothing she buys from me.
Characters will even report back and update you on their lives. A recent customer asked for a new dress to help her confidence when she asked someone out, and then came back later to tell me he rejected her. She wanted a new outfit to help her get over it, and let me style her however I wanted to. You can also text any character you want to ask them to come by the salon with your in-game mobile phone, and sometimes they’ll text you asking for a new look.
Your customers’ requests range from the very simple to the more elaborate and interesting. For the former kind of request, stuff like, “I want something with a flower pattern,” Styling Star has included a “Search By Request” button for searching your inventory. In previous games you’d have to enter the parameters of your search manually every single time, making the process incredibly tedious. Now, you just hit a button. In general, Styling Star makes the day to day gameplay just a little bit less of a slog than previous games. Tired of hawking clothes? Well, once you unlock them, you can head down to the hair salon, beautician’s, or menswear store to help out there. Been a while since you’ve seen the three pop stars? The game will throw you other, shorter stories with other characters in between. Don’t know what to get when you’re restocking? Every store has a button to select the brand representative’s recommendations and add those to the cart. You can always do things the longer, more tedious way, but there are some welcome new options to save you some frustration.
The more elaborate a customer’s request, the more it begins to feel like a logic puzzle. When a customer comes through and wants you to buy them an outfit that matches their hat, you have to really think about what they’re already wearing, and what items in your stockroom are in that style. One character came by wearing what looked to me like a girly outfit. She was wearing a pale blue dress and a pink cardigan, with a light blue sunhat. She wanted me to get her an outfit to match a pair of yellow shorts, so I looked through the girly items in my inventory and put something together—a nice yellow chequered shirt, knee socks and oxford shoes. It turned out it wasn’t her style at all. When she returns, I’m going to try the “Feminine” style, which is slightly less frilly and has more mature looking slacks and blouses.
Putting together an outfit from the context clues provided isn’t usually all that hard, as the styles are distinct from each other. But the last part of that puzzle is whether or not the outfit you make looks good to you, the player. You’re going to see that character again in your shop after they leave. You don’t want them to look totally ridiculous. There is a wide variety of clothes within each brand, and sometimes clothing in a brand will overlap with different styles. Because of that, even when customers come in with the same request, you can give them a different answer. This one woman keeps coming in and asking me for beige trousers. While I hope she learns to live a little, she’s gotten a different pair of trousers each time.
The world and these characters are a reflection of how customisable the game wants to be. Over time you’ll unlock a hair salon, beautician’s, a florist, a cake shop, and a menswear store. Other than the menswear store, all of these are places for you to buy objects to customise your shop, your apartment or yourself. Whenever you visit the exhibition hall to restock your clothing, you also get each item you buy for your personal wardrobe. The idea is that you can change your look as frequently as you want to, multiple times a day even. You theoretically have the resources to be a new you any time you want to be, leaving a tangible mark on the world and characters around you.
It doesn’t all come together. While running your boutique can get surprisingly complex, working at the hair salon and beautician’s is pretty boring. Customers at the boutique usually have specific requests, or barring that, specific tastes in clothes. At the hair salon, characters sometimes come in asking for specific hairstyles, but more often they tell you to just do whatever you want. The game will sometimes tell you that certain styles are casual or girly or cool, but the customers themselves seem not to care. That shallowness is even more pronounced at the beautician’s, where customers never have specific requests or tastes at all. The last time I fixed someone’s makeup, the character told me that she had seen someone with great makeup and was obsessed. Instead of telling me what she liked about it, she said she couldn’t remember what it looked like and I should do whatever I wanted. When your customers don’t have meaningful preferences, it becomes much less satisfying to help them. If they don’t know what they want and don’t care what I do, why should I bother changing people’s makeup at all?
The heart of the New Style Boutique series isn’t really fashion. It’s helping people. As satisfying as it is to put together a beautiful outfit, what’s most gratifying is how effusively your customers thank you for helping them. When I gave a makeover to Alina’s equally nerdy friend Melvin, he thanked me for giving him a renewed sense of confidence. This game doesn’t treat changing your clothes as a frivolous activity, nor does it treat the idea of liking clothes as silly. Characters repeatedly talk about how fashion can be a kind of magic that changes your outlook on life. The first time I heard it I thought it was corny. I really like clothing and fashion, but I’m not that sentimental about it. After over thirty hours of transforming people in New Style Boutique, and remembering all the times a compliment on my outfit brightened my day, I’m a bit more convinced that clothing can be magical.
I struggle to think of a game where so many characters spent so long thanking me, or showing me how I’ve changed their lives. It can be touching. One character, Hafsa, came to town looking for a job. She told me on her first visit that she never really had any friends. After repeat visits to my salon, she’d discovered a personal style she liked, got the job, and had finally made a close female friend. Another character, Kay, showed up at my salon telling me that she was too shy to date. After a couple visits and some new outfits, she’d found a boyfriend. Through the salon, I’d helped them make tangible changes in their lives. When the praise lacks specificity, like they usually do in the hair salon and beautician’s, it rings a little hollow. Those aspects of the game are optional, however, so more frequently you’re going to feel fulfilled by helping people out. Sure, they’re not really people. Sometimes, the limits of the game’s abilities will show through (go away, beige trousers lady). Still, even though I knew I was playing a game, it meant a lot when I saw how I’d help these characters in their lives, and to be thanked for it.
I’ve played enough Styling Star to unlock everything. I’ve seen every brand, every haircut and hair colour, every type of lipstick and eyeshadow. Rosie, Yolanda and Alina have made their debuts at music festivals, clubs and fairs, and they’ve even teamed up into a super group. All the songs they’ve sung have been about believing in yourself and living for your dreams. They’re incredibly catchy if sometimes lacking in substance, but I enjoyed watching all of their performances. As their stylist, I created the outfits they wear, and it was kind of cool to know that the pop stars in my game of New Style Boutique: Styling Star don’t look like anyone else’s.
During their final song, “Ring a Ding,” these three women performed as a group, which I’d named RYA for their initials. “Just keep looking to the future, even when it’s raining, ‘cause sunny days are on their way,” they sang, looking confident in the outfits I’d put together for them. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt a small swell of pride.