Final Fantasy XIII-2 left the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe in a right old state. Cocoon, the floating city that housed "civilised" humanity and was saved from crashing into the ground by two women transforming into a crystal pillar, finally succumbed to the ravages of gravity. This left Bhunivelze, a hollow sphere named after an ancient mystery god, floating in its place.
More annoyingly, the demise of XIII-2's loving villain, Caius Ballad, triggered the sympathetic death of the goddess Etro. We know, right - and it turns out that one of Etro's main jobs, when she wasn't inventing humanity, was to maintain the separation of the regular human world from the sterile dimension of Valhalla. As these two worlds crashed into each other, XIII-2 ended with a death knell sounding over the land, and charcoal swirls of smoke smothering the land of Pulse. It makes you glad to live in a universe where the gods are happy not getting involved.
Time in Valhalla doesn't flow as it should. Now the two worlds are sharing a set of physical laws based on compromise, one of the unexpected side-effects is that humanity has stopped aging. By the time Lightning awakes, 500 years after the finale of XIII-2, the world has settled into four islands linked by a rail system, and everyone's had a good chance to sit around and think about the benefits of mortality. Religion has become more popular than ever, especially in Luxerion - the city of light and prayer. There's a cultish, Vatican City feel to this town. You don't trust it.
Who's driving this car?
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is "world-driven". This is the third attempt to find a driver for FFXIII. "Story-driven" XIII was too linear for too long. It was famously 10-15 hours before you got to explore the freestyle missions of Gran Pulse.
In fairness to Square Enix, XIII's biggest sin was the fact it did nothing to hide the corridors. Take FFVIII - there's a similarly long period of limited choice before you get that classic freedom of the Final Fantasy airship. Anyway: we complained, Square listened, and its response was the "player-driven" XIII-2, which replaced the world map with a knotted timeline that you could travel at will. Power to the player indeed - but this traded in a rich, explorable world for a series of disjointed, lonely maps.
That's why this new approach is "world-driven". Shopkeepers are back, putting that gil-crazy chicken lady Chocolina out of a job. But that's not what it means: it means the world in Lightning Returns dictates what you can and can't do. Specifically, the time. People live their lives independently of your concerns. One mission-giving woman will only offer you her mission while she's on her way to work. If that sounds potentially frustrating, at least you've got 13 days, and 13 walks to work, to find her.
The idea of NPCs having their own routines is great in theory, and works in the Elder Scrolls games. But with a huge death clock hovering at the top of the screen, you might have to give up your completist ambitions - it'll be almost impossible to finish every mission in a single playthrough.
Fightning, more like
In a decision that almost feels brave, Lightning is the only playable character. XIII-2 whittled the team down to two, but gave you a summoned creature to fight alongside. To return some of the complexity, Lightning Returns uses another new twist on the Active Time Battle (ATB) system that's been around since FFIV: the immodestly titled "Amazing ATB" system. Instead of having three combatants, Lightning can equip three concurrent styles. Each of these styles has its own action bar, and you can swap between them with the bumpers.