For nearly a month, one game has been dominating my rotation. It's danced across my phone screen as I lay awake too late at night. It's sapped away complete afternoons of my life, completely by accident. And it's a little mobile game for iOS and Android called Love Nikki-Dress UP Queen. (Yes, the UP is accentuated for some unknown, mysterious reason.)
Love Nikki Dress Up Queen (I'm not going to stylize it any longer) is a dress-up game by way of the Style Savvy series. You have an avatar, and with clothes, make-up, hairstyles, and more you can adorn them with outfits to your every whim. But Love Nikki Dress Up Queen takes the concepts laid by the Love Nikki series' predecessors, and builds on them like never before.
Love Nikki features a lot of things I've never seen in a dress-up game before. It has a fully English voice acted RPG-like quest: one with dual difficulties, chapters, levelling up, and fashion battles (which pins your avatar's carefully constructed outfit against an NPC's). It has crafting, where you can grind levels to unlock a certain piece of clothing, and toss them all towards a recipe to make something even greater. You're able to customize clothes, with patterns, color, and even evolve them (provided you have multiple of the same type). Heck, it even has random text adventures and trivia intertwined with its special events. Love Nikki Dress Up Queen is not only the weirdest and most expansive game of its genre that I've ever played, but also the most rewarding to ever grace the land of free-to-play mobile games.
Love Nikki is split into various gameplay modes, though they all have you constructing stylish outfits all the same. There's "Stylist's Arena," which is a PvP mode against other players. There's "Competition," where you style a single outfit adhering to a theme (the recent one being "Flapper Girl"), and other players judge you for it. Finally, there's "Nikki's Journey," the RPG-like mode, complete with chapters and a world map.
On the trail we are our avatar Nikki, personified as a stylist. Along her tumultuous journey she styles outfits for the friends she makes along the way, and competes against foes in what I imagine would be like the walk off scene in Zoolander (only here it's stagnant, the attacks in the form of "critical eyes"). Every stage contains a new theme, like, "casual attire which camouflages into the flower field," which right away I know to be a hint at floral, spring-like wear. Eventually, they get much more complex. The situations for dressing up are all wholly unique, making each outfit feel equally creative and fresh.
I think I've stuck with Love Nikki for so long because its free-to-play aspects seem so negligible. Often, I forget that it even is a free-to-play game. Love Nikki is the rare monetization-fielded game that actually rewards you for playing, rather than barring you from progressing once your allotted time has run out (whether that's measured by stamina or whatever else). Love Nikki wants you to keep playing, whether that's expanded by your wallet, sheer skill, or just from completing other tasks.
The game's latest event seems to take place in the post-apocalypse, judging from the dilapidated buildings.
In Love Nikki, there is a stamina-system (embellished with hearts), but as with so many tasks in the game, you're constantly flooded with them. When I load up the game to retrieve sign in bonuses or rewards for passing levels in the campaign, hearts shower down upon me. Everytime my self-insert mannequin levels up, their "maximum" stamina rises high. As of now, I have 145/71 hearts, over twice the "maximum" amount for stamina. There are technically limitations in Love Nikki, but with all the rewards I get for playing the game, I've hardly ever hit them.
I usually stay far away from free-to-play games. Or alternatively, play them for a few days and bounce on them once I hit what feels like a paywall. This happened recently with Magikarp Jump, the Magikarp-celebrating mobile clicker released earlier this year. This happened with Sailor Moon Drops, a charming Match 3 game themed after the Sailor Scouts themselves. My experiences with all those games ended the same: I got annoyed, and fled. Love Nikki seems to respect the player's time though. To the point where I almost feel guilty with the amount of time I've spent with it while not spending a dime.
I wish there was a way to track the amount of time I've sunk into this game. I wouldn't be surprised if it's somewhere over a dozen hours, or even over 20 hours. (It's a lot. Too much time.) Just as Style Savvy: Fashion Forward and Animal Crossing: New Leaf have dominated my life in the past, I wonder if Love Nikki will ever phase itself out. Because unlike those choice 3DS games, Love Nikki is on my phone, perpetually at my fingertips and just a tap away. It's what I now play every night before I go to sleep. It's the first thing I check when I wake up. Love Nikki has become the bookends to my days, and I wouldn't have it any other way.