I haven’t had much time to play, and what I have played hasn’t been particularly eventful, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to address an aspect of Final Fantasy XIII I was particularly worried about going in: the portrayal of female characters.
Based on the art and trailers I’d seen of Final Fantasy XIII, there was a large part of me that was reflexively offended by it. I’m politically progressive, Canadian, an urban dweller, and someone with very little time for bigotry and sexism — being offended on behalf of others is something that, for better or worse, I’m pretty good at. Growing up in prudish Canada (fairly similar to the U.S. or U.K., I believe), one also tends to develop a weird disconnect between what they’re personally offended or made uncomfortable my, and what they’re offended or uncomfortable by behalf of others. In the case of Final Fantasy XIII, my issues largely fall into the latter category.
With that out of the way, here’s an obvious jumping-off point: with one exception (Nora/Hope’s mom), every important female character I’ve run into thus far has been wearing no pants. Lightning has a short skirt, Vanille has an even shorter skirt and some conveniently placed furs, Fang has a structurally flawed dress, Lebreau is straight-up wearing underwear, and Serah is wearing a short schoolgirl-esque skirt and stockings. Lightning and Serah are the only two wearing something that could be fairly (though loosely) characterized as a shirt. The male characters in this game are dressed a bit absurdly, but with the arguable exception of Snow’s deep V, nothing they’re wearing is particularly suggestive.
During my first play session, my reflective distaste for the female character models was very much at the surface of my perception, but a few sessions later, I realized that I’d almost entirely forgotten about it. Upon reflection, I think it’s because I don’t find the character models gross in the way that I might in a Dead or Alive or Soulcalibur game (neither of which, I should say, I have much experience with). In large part, I think that’s because the proportions are realistic (or at least plausible), they don’t look like creepy rubbery sex dolls, the costumes are aesthetically pleasing in ways beyond "look, boobs!”, and there’s no pandering breast physics. I find the models a bit distasteful, and I think what they represent about the way Japanese developers approach gender is troublesome, but they’re not they’re not actively ruining the way I experience the characters.
It also helps that the female characters are mostly a strong, independent, self-reliant group. Lightning and Fang (who I haven’t seen much of yet) are badasses with no time for bullshit, and Lebreau seems like the most adult member of NORA. I think I might be too early to judge Vanille since cutscenes (particularly in chapter 6) have strongly indicated she’s putting on an act and has way more to her, but even if her character weren’t to meaningfully evolve, she’s still not needy or helpless. Serah, like Vanille, I don’t think I can judge at this point, especially considering what I know about her role in Final Fantasy XIII–2. If anything, one could make a (somewhat flawed and selective) case that the male characters are the ones inhibiting the traditional (sexist) female gender roles: Snow is infatuated and irrational, Hope is needy, impulsive and obsessive, and Sazh was escorted by a female companion through most of the beginning of the game.
I don’t have much Japanese cultural context, I haven’t played many JRPGs, and I can’t speak to other games in the series. I’m inclined to be annoyed by overly sexualized depictions of female characters, but my perception of Final Fantasy XIII’s female characters has been largely ambivalent. I can’t speak for others’ cultures, I can’t speak for others of my culture, and I certainly can’t speak for females, who I genuinely do worry may be alienated by the female characters in this game, but I’ll give Square Enix credit: this aspect of the game has been pleasantly inoffensive.
I want to clarify a few things, as I did a poor job communicating my views in the original post. I like the almost all of the character designs quite a bit aesthetically. My only issue — and it’s quite a minor one — is that almost all the female characters’ costumes (with the exception of Lightning) feel a bit pandering. I don’t have a problem with short skirts, exposed midriff, attractive female characters who are comfortable with their bodies, or any other single characteristic of the characters — it’s considering all of them at once that gives me pause. When every costume it the game seems very deliberately designed to almost show underwear (in a culture that, more-so than others, fetishizes womens' underwear), I'm forced to consider the idea that dozens of concept artists, 3D artists, managers, and creative directors spent a lot of time thinking about and tweaking these designs, and this is what they arrived at.
I wouldn’t call it “gross,” and calling it “suggestive” was a clear misuse of the term (because simply dressing one way or another doesn’t suggest sex, which wasn’t what I meant), but it doesn’t sit well with me either. Again, this is on a completely different level than problems I have with games that legitimately feel gross to me, like Dead or Alive. For what it’s worth (not much, I suppose), I’ve talked with a couple of female friends about this game, and they were very much turned off by the costumes. Both are long-time fans of the series, and continue to be. I know I’m a bit of a prude, and if you don’t see where I’m coming from, that’s totally okay.
And yes, I know what's going on with Vanille and Fang, and it may somewhat justify their dress.