If one isn't paying attention, Celes Chere is easily overlooked as a stock squeeze for the dashing male lead, but who is the lead, anyway? She may join the troupe in medias res, but Celes quickly takes the helm in the World of Ruin. Despite how bleak the future seems, she almost single-handedly saves the world by scouring the planet in search of old friends. All of this does not come easily to our heroine in the second act, however. In her complexity and depth of character, Celes struggles with human weakness, as we saw with her suicide attempt. Through strength and the bonds of love, she overcomes this vulnerability, and ventures forth on little more than a raft. Apart from her utility as a likable and inspiring adventurer, Celes is a beast on the battlefield: not only does she protect the party from hazardous spells with Runic, but she's a tanky damage dealer with spells or sword. Whether brandishing a blade, nursing her "father" back to health, or performing a traditional role in an opera, Celes illustrates just how multifaceted a female protagonist can be.
Sometimes being strong is simply about being true to yourself. When Persona 3 begins, we find Mitsuru, who is not only leader of the S.E.E.S., but also the student council president, member of the fencing team, and later valedictorian. She's intelligent, confident, a bit domineering, a perfectionist, and an all-around great leader. But there's more to Mitsuru than meets the eye and this comes through when her father passes away and she has the weight of his company on her shoulders. She's expected to take over the Kirijo Company, which means tossing aside college, other professional aspirations, and basically any other plans she had for her life to toil on the family farm. Later, you find out there's an arranged marriage in store for her; in order to preserve the company, she must marry a much older president of one of the company's affiliates. Mitsuru states, "Sometimes I feel shackled by my family name." It becomes even more apparent when her fiancé says she has to be "obedient" and "adjust to his schedule." That is exactly where Mitsuru grows: she breaks through the shackles and rejects a life that has already been decided for her. In the end, she lives life on her own terms and goes on a journey of self discovery to be true to herself. Not only does Mitsuru exemplify courage and heart, but she's also not afraid of the future. She can live her life any way she chooses.
When you first start up Nier, it isn't the titular character's voice you first hear. Nope, it's Kaine's and she's rather angry. Her voice not only introduces you to the game, but her personality as well. You quickly learn how little Kaine cares for manners. Or feelings. But it would be wrong to say Kaine is simply a slightly more mature incarnation of the badass lady archetype (which wouldn't quite warrant inclusion on a list such as this). Kaine may put up a tough shield against emotion and sentiment, but the game sees the removal of that shield. She is realistically complex, and that the game's second playthrough is dedicated to her is testament to her depth. What's more, she is Nier's support system without being a whiny little healer who simply can't handle all the monsters. She doesn't stay in the back supporting Nier like a meek little girl; she fights right alongside him. Kaine could waste half the girls on this list, but she also has feelings, and that's what makes her a true woman.
So far in the Mass Effect trilogy, Commander Shepard has saved the galaxy twice – and she's about to do it a third time. She's a persuasive fighter and leader – as well as a friend and lover if you so choose. Not very many leaders can say they have gathered some of the most dangerous personalities and gained their loyalty – so much so that they would willingly follow her into a suicide mission.
While you can choose Shepard's gender, the female has the huge benefit over the male of having Jennifer Hale's near-perfect vocal delivery. No matter which dialogue choices you make or morality path you take Shepard on – either a charismatic paragon or intimidating renegade – she has the fear and respect of the entire Milky Way, allies and enemies alike.
Especially when they realize that she's, you know, still alive.
Alis Landale is, for all intents and purposes, the original female heroine. And unlike many of her peers, her journey isn't motivated by adventure, or following a heroic love interest, or the pursuit of riches. In the opening moments of the game, the formerly benevolent king Lassic (or Lashiec, depending on when you jumped into the series) has Alis' brother Nero murdered for treason. Alis swears revenge and sets out on a quest to topple Lassic's regime that spans several planets and involves neither romance nor "I need saving" moments. Alis is treated like any other hero of the day, and does quite a bit of rescuing and town-saving on her own – with the help of her crew, of course. Given the 8-bit nature of the game, there wasn't a huge amount of exposition for her character (though spin-off titles did expound on it), but it simply can't be argued that Alis is the spiritual ancestor of many of the other ladies on this list and refreshingly ahead of her time as well.
To say Lenneth came from humble beginnings would be an understatement. Upon learning that her impoverished parents intend to sell her into slavery, a young Platina runs away and dies tragically. Upon being reborn as Lenneth Valkyrie, she lacks these horrible memories and is able to serve Odin in recruiting Einherjar for the upcoming war of the gods, Ragnarok.
Progressing through Valkyrie Profile will likely lead you to one of the game's two non-endings, but only the third "A" ending really finishes the story. It's only when playing the game in a certain way – particularly in regards to interactions with Lucian, Platina's childhood friend – that Lenneth recalls her sealed memories as Platina. And that's when things really take off.
Despite the game's age, I won't get into details (you can find those easily enough if you want), as I think it's best to play the game and witness it for yourself. The short of it: In a complete reversal of Platina's hopeless fate as a slave, Lenneth overcomes incredible odds, even death (twice!), and manages to surpass her peers and masters, saving both Asgard and Midgard from destruction. Physical strength is one thing, but Lenneth's resolve in accomplishing her difficult task is admirable, inspiring, and well, just plain awesome.
When you first meet Raquel Applegate in Wild Arms 4, she wins you over immediately. There's a group of soldiers hassling a waitress, and she doesn't hesitate to give the soldiers a piece of her mind. The way she delivers the line, "I know a thing or two about swords, but unfortunately, 'charming' isn't part of my repertoire," you know the girl means business. Later you'll find her to be one of the strongest characters in your party who often takes on the role of the "tank." Raquel has a lot going for her: she's sharp, intuitive, tactical, and has the street smarts many lack. She's also wise beyond her years and often mentors the group. Raquel was such a joy to experience, especially standing against Yulie, who was the typical healer with weaker qualities. In the end, when you find out the true reason Raquel has been searching for something still beautiful in the world it really makes her shine. She gains your respect in one of the more touching moments I've seen in a game to date. In the end, Raquel doesn't live in fear; she lives her life to the fullest, and that's more than reason to have her as a part of this list!
April Ryan is not a sword-wielding badass with a tragic backstory, a warrior goddess, or anything like that. She's actually a fairly normal 18 year-old girl pursuing her dreams at an art college, working a crummy waitressing job to pay the rent, enjoying scant time with her friends, warding off sleaze-bucket guys, and all that good stuff. But that realism is what makes April such a compelling protagonist. She is an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances who realizes that she is a stronger, smarter, and more resilient person than she ever thought she was.
Everything about April Ryan feels real, from the way she talks to the way she acts to the way she perceives the familiar and mysterious aspects of the world around her. She's not a one-dimensional archetype, but a fleshed-out person. Her reactions to crazy situations are believable, her introspective and interpersonal dialogues are eloquent, and she liberally uses her creativity to solve problems. She's also no shrinking violet, deftly handling an overbearing boss, a womanizing jerk of a neighbor, a chauvinistic ship captain, lewd guys making passes at her, and a wisecracking crow sidekick. She's also open-minded, accepting the lesbian lifestyle of her landlady and allowing herself to give everyone she meets a fair chance, no matter how strange or frightening they may seem. She grows tremendously during her experience and becomes a stronger woman than she ever thought she would be, while occasionally allowing herself to relax her focus and be her quirky self.
All that being said, the real key to April's strength is her strength of self. She is not afraid to be herself, nor is she afraid to discover and learn new things about herself as she's thrust outside her comfort zone. If you can answer the question, "who are you?" as confidently as April does after The Longest Journey of her life, then that's strength.
While not the main protagonist of her game, Alys Brangwin is an absolutely key part of the main hero Chaz Ashley's development into a responsible, universe-saving adult. And, the early parts of the game feature their relationship in such a way that was, much like Alis Landale's character years prior, unprecedented at the time. An exceptionally skilled monster hunter, Alys takes a young Chaz under her wing, rescuing him from a life of thievery and petty crime and molding him into a skilled fighter and a morally upright young man. This positioning of Alys as the 'wise mentor' is an oustanding achievement for dynamic and well-developed female RPG characters. She provides not only a moral compass and skill in fighting for Chaz, but is also his closest friend and only true parental figure he ever had – which makes her final moments in the game that much more tragic. Alys has a profound and believable impact on Chaz's life, and the way her character was written and developed is a tremendous victory not only for female protagonists, but for RPG leads in general.
On a personal level, I felt more when the Black Wave took Alys' life than I ever did with Sephiroth dropped out of nowhere to smite Aeris/th for no apparent reason, and that's made all the more impressive given that from both a technical and a writing perspective, Phantasy Star IV came a generation before Final Fantasy VII.
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Aya Brea was introduced to players in an opera scene full of pandemonium and frenzy. As the opera singer sings, people are busting into flame right before her eyes. What does Aya do? Instead of running away in complete horror, she pushes her date aside and tells him to wait out while she handles the situation. This NYPD rookie doesn't depend on her squad to go after the mysterious girl, she charges in headfirst without a second thought. This striking scene encapsulates the character of Aya Brea perfectly. In all the chaos that happens in the Parasite Eve games, Aya never turns her back on finding the true answer and charging into situations. Even when her boss begs her not to talk at the press conference about the opera situation, Aya, though hesitant at first, speaks up because she doesn't want to put on a front. Aya Brea has imperfections, moments of ambivalence and doubt, but through it all she always overcomes her obstacles. She is a woman taking charge of her own destiny. Passion, courage, dedication – Aya Brea, you've done your job well.