It's painfully easy to underestimate what fashion games are capable of doing, and that's especially true on iOS. Even as an ardent and open-minded fan of chic series' like Style Savvy, I've found myself pretty unimpressed by the apps available to scratch that fashion game itch on my phone. There are countless paper doll sims with limited wardrobes and even more limited gameplay hooks, not to mention the abundance of copyright infringement.
Love Nikki-Dress UP Queen, on the other hand, is the opposite of those games in nearly every way. That's probably why I can't put it down. Love Nikki's success comes in its wholehearted embrace of every free-to-play tactic in the book. Honestly, this game has more complexity to it and more to do than some of the team-leveling gacha-fest mobile RPGs I've played — and that's not even getting into the voiced lines and the lore.
(Yes, there's lore. You see, there was this thing called the Nine Days War and… Let's not worry about it right now.)
Love Nikki-Dress UP Queen starts players off with simple styling challenges, divided up by levels and acts of the story. Styling entails making an outfit that fits the theme of a given level and has the best stats, and winning earns coins and chances at clothing prizes. Once an act is completed at Maiden difficulty, it can be replayed at Princess difficulty, which offers a greater challenge, less assistance, and even better prizes. Straightforward enough, right?
Once players have the basics down, the game steadily introduces more, and more, and more. A gacha system that gives out random high-level items, player-versus-player styling contests, sign-in bonuses, daily quests, weekly events.
Then there's the crafting. Dyes can be used to alter certain pieces of clothing and change their stats, recipes learned to craft entirely new pieces, old pieces broken down into base materials, and multiples combined and evolved into fancier designed versions with improved stats. Crafting is often the only way to complete the dozens of collectible outfit sets representing the world's different kingdoms and their respective styles, and complete sets yield even more rewards.
Coming from a publisher that specializes in knock-offs of popular games like Clash of Clans, it shouldn't be too surprising that Love Nikki has its free-to-play bullshit on lock.
A little more surprising, though, is how it rewards players at pretty much every turn. This is a big part of what keeps all this free-to-play razzle-dazzle feeling fun rather than outright exploitative. It's manipulative either way, sure, but it showers players in so much premium currency that even refilling stamina or topping off coins doesn't require a real transaction.
Worth just as much credit is the fact that when players use one garment to craft another, they will always be left with one of the original garment as well as the newly crafted one. It's not interested in taking what a player already has, and that translates to way less grinding (and stamina) needed to fill out a closet. The gachas that rely on premium currency give players a free pull every day, too, meaning that whether they whip out a credit card or not everyone still has a chance at the exact same goodies.
In the end, a little patience and a lot of smart crafting will get a Love Nikki player further than a lump of premium currency. It's that, combined with the game's complexity and the sheer volume of clothing items and styles available, that make every outfit feel unique, and every S-rank feel well-earned. So much more than just a set of virtual paper dolls, Love Nikki-Dress UP Queen the kind of fashion game I've wanted on my phone for years.