For many in the “mainstream” gaming community, visual novels are often seen as not “real” games—to many, an interactive story-based game can sound like a snooze fest. But, the truth is, visual novels are some of the most diverse games out there, covering a wide range of stories and genres… that quite frankly surpass anything I’ve seen from most mainstream games. Whether it’s a sci-fi adventure set in a distant galaxy, a slice of life romance, or an epic historical drama—visual novels are open to a wealth of story telling opportunities! They even lend themselves to giving creators from all walks of life a platform to tell their own unique stories with characters that are representative of themselves and the larger gaming community.
As a Black woman and a gamer, I find that I turn to indie visual novels whenever I am hankering for more diverse gaming options and always, visual novels deliver. Over the years I have discovered quite a few gems and I’ve even had the opportunity to chat with a few developers of color, like Jellyfish Parade founder, Jessinia. I am no stranger to her games, having fallen head over heels for her sci-fi romance game PAIRS—which follows two couples as they navigate the ups and downs of their relationship against the backdrop of an ongoing war between Earth and an invading alien race. But, what drew me to the game was the fact that both of its female leads have distinctly Black features (something that was WHOLLY intentional), while not being defined by the color of their skin—something that isn’t as common as it should be in media. So, when I saw that Jellyfish Parade was working on a new (longer) romance game featuring a Black female lead and a diverse set of love interests… let’s just say I was closely following the project!
Ocean Pearls: Kissed by the Sea is an upcoming fantasy romance visual novel that follows Nova, a young woman who finds her life turned upside down when she is unwittingly betrothed to one of several eligible ocean royals. I managed to get a sneak peak at the demo and y’all, I am in love with these mermen~ (and the game too)!
In the game you play as Nova, a renowned sculptor who is experiencing a bit of a creative slump. So at the suggestion of her agent she returns to her seaside hometown Stonewater, where she lived with her late grandmother. When she arrives she learns that her grandmother’s old friend has left her a beach side house in his will and she decides to stay in town for a bit longer. Things take a turn for the strange when Nova receives a mysterious package from her grandmother containing four glass spheres and a letter telling her to “break open her happiness”. Confused, Nova sets out to get some answers, taking one of the glass spheres with her, but she accidentally falls into the ocean—breaking the sphere in the process. Things look pretty grim for Nova, but she is saved from drowning by one of the handsome rulers of the oceans and taken to his kingdom under the sea… as his new fiance?!
It would have been easy to just repackage an existing story, but the writers take the time to really flesh out the world and characters of Ocean Pearls. Each character has their own unique (yeah, I’m gonna use that word quite a bit) designs that mirror the diversity of life in the sea. Soh, who comes from a much more combative region has much more rugged, imposing features (thick scales and pointed shark-like teeth) while Lemos, who comes from a nation of scholars has a much more elegant appearance (long flowing robes and graceful features). From their clothing to their fins and scales, no two characters truly look alike and that more than anything gives the world of Ocean Pearls so much more vast, because you can truly see how each race of seapeople developed. There are characters in all shades and hues and I AM HERE for all this beautiful melanin representation!!
Most of the time I’m lucky to find a game that has one Black or Brown character, but Ocean Pearls is filled with characters of all colors! But, what sets this game apart is that these characters are not defined by the color of their skin—they are people first and foremost, with all the nuance and depth that that entails. Lemos is intelligent and just a bit on the snarky side (and I love him all the more for it); Soh can be a bit of a hothead, but he’s earnest; while Isven is totally a kuudere—and then there is Nova… I have been thirsting for a Black otome heroine like her for so long and she is perfect! She is EVERYTHING!
Most otome/romance heroines are little more than self insert character—because lets face it they only exist to give the player a window into the world of the game. Indie games have been really great about balancing the self-insert nature of their leads with juuuust enough personality to give them some agency in the story (you know, so you care what happens to them). I’ve been lucky enough to come across some pretty great heroines over the years, and from what I’ve seen in this demo, Nova is shaping up to be one of my new faves! She’s a vibrant, strong willed young woman, who isn’t afraid to speak her mind—but she can be vulnerable, which is something I wish I saw more from Black female character. Sure, everyone is familiar with the “strong Black woman” archetype, but we are by no means just that. We have layers, and it is great to see a character of color like Nova who can be headstrong, but also funny too, especially in a romance themed game.
I don’t relate to Nova because she’s a Black woman, I relate to her because I see myself in her mannerisms and her observations, because she’s quick to tease and not above a bit of snarking. She’s honest and nuanced in ways you just don’t see with characters of color and a lot of that is because the creator of the game is in fact a Black woman. There were little details like Nova’s hair curling up underwater (or the fact that the first thing Nova worried about after waking up underwater was her edges… #BlackHairLife) that while subtle, really made this experience for me. You don’t have to constantly prove that a character is Black by shouting it from the rooftops with overused (and played out) stereotypes and cues—rather it’s the little things that make a character relatable.
I could gush about the importance of having Black creators tell Black stories, but that’s what my Melanin Monday series is for, instead I want to praise the gorgeous UI and art. Ocean Pearls has seen quite a few stylistic changes over the course of it’s development and I really love the new direction. Like I said earlier, each character design is unique to that particular character—the designs strike a nice balance between ethereal and human enough that players can still relate to them (and find them SUPER MEGA FOXY HOT). The have fish like features, but they don’t have fish tails, that whole business confused the heck out of me (I mean, how do they procreate… for science of course) and while they look human, there are little tweaks here and there to add that fun fantasy element to their appearance. The underwater world is much the same, there are definitely things you’d find above ground, like homes, furniture, transportation, etc, but with a bit of an ocean twist.
It’s still early on the romance bits, but I love the interactions between the love interests and Nova—with Lemos they spend the majority of their time snarking at one another like leads in a 90’s rom-com (which I am weak for), while in Soh’s path he is less than enthusiastic about his new fiance. Isven is your typical aloof loner, so Nova has to put a bit more effort into winning him over, but because of this you get to spend time with more of his extended cast.
There is just so much to cover with this demo and my only complaint is that it’s just the demo. I want more and I needed it like yesterday! I am definitely curious to learn more about seapeople and the whole underwater kingdom—there is just so much world building potential and the demo just barely scratches the surface. The characters are great and one of the biggest draws for me is the diverse cast—though if I’m being honest, Lemos is probably my fave character right now (Isven is a clooooose second), but all of the love interests are great. Nova is the otome heroine I’ve been waiting for and I can only hope that more developers will take the leap and start giving us more Black and Brown leading ladies.
If you haven’t checked out this demo yet, I highly recommend you give it a playthrough—you won’t be disappointed! It just dropped, so go dive into this colorful, fantasy adventure!
Where to Play the Demo: Itch.io
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