Lightning is the only playable character in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. In the field, she can crouch, jump, climb, and perform other actions akin to those featured in stealth adventure games. In battle, Lightning can change her garb, weapon, shield, accessories and equipped abilities on the fly via the Schema system, similar to the paradigm system from previous Lightning Saga games. Lightning can dodge, block and counter enemies' attacks. She can expend Energy Points inside and outside of battle for various effects, and recharge her energy meter by winning battles. She may ride a steed on the Wildlands after unlocking the Angel of Valhalla as part of the main quest there.
Lightning starts with 2,000 HP, 200 Strength, 200 Magic, 100 ATB, and 100 ATB Speed. In a "double KO" situation, Lightning wins the battle and is revived with 1 HP. Lightning can replenish HP via items, Curaga, restaurants and inns, and by returning to the Ark at the end of each day.
Rather than leveling up by defeating monsters like in other games, Lightning develops her stats by completing game events and side quests.
By assigning different schemata to Lightning to use in battle, the player can use different sets of skills, garbs, and equipment. It is up to the player to adjust schema to suit their needs, similar to the job system used in other Final Fantasy games, or the Paradigm Shift system in the other Lightning Saga games. Players can assign three schemata at one time to be use in battle, which can be changed mid-battle via / and /. Shifting through different schemata allows the player to maximize Lightning's performance. Each schema has a certain amount of points to its ATB gauge that decrease as Lightning executes abilities, and they slowly refill. Some garbs have their ATB charge boosted if they are not the active one in the battle.
As part of the Schema system, Lightning can wear various outfits, called garbs, which have different stats and abilities. The outfits appear on her in the field and during most story scenes. The player can further decorate her via adornments. Each type of garb has its own victory pose and idle pose. Other idle poses occur when standing in the Dead Dunes from 05:00-09:00 (dazzled), the Dead Dunes from 09:00-18:00 (hot), the Dead Dunes or Wildlands from 18:00-05:00 (cold), or when rotating the movement stick (dizzy).
Lightning learns various abilities to use in battle that expend that schema's ATB; the same ability can be assigned to more than one schemata at once, however, allowing the player to use it more often. Some abilities are locked to certain garbs.
Energy Points can be expended for various effects and are shared between schemata. Energy Points are equivalent to TP from Final Fantasy XIII, where the player accumulates points to perform techniques. EP abilities have various effects from healing to reviving, to damaging opponents. Some of the notables ones are:
Overclock is a battle element where Lightning can slow time to 10% for everyone but herself; she can attack quicker and has quicker recovery. When using Overclock, the ATB gauge is replaced by the Overclock gauge that is spent by executing abilities. When the gauge is nearly empty, Lightning can execute any ability regardless of cost. After the gauge is empty, the player resumes normal control of Lightning, and all three schemata will have their ATB fully refilled.
Army of One, Lightning's signature ability is used during Overclock to unleash a devastating flurry of blows.
Lightning can wield different types of weapons, though they all perform the same in battle. For example, the gunblades do not fire projectiles. Some garbs let Lightning wield both a shield and a weapon; shields' common traits are raising maximum HP and status resistance. Equipping a shield improves Lightning;s ability to guard against enemy attacks.
Lightning's default weapon is the Crimson Blitz gunblade, which is complemented by the Night Lotus shield. At a point in the final dungeon, they are replaced by the Ultima Weapon and Ultima Shield, the best equipment pieces in the game.
Weapons and shields can be upgraded from the second playthrough onwards after the player has defeated the final boss. Weapons can be upgraded at forges for a small fee and various materials. It is not possible to attain max out all parameters because each item can only be upgraded a set number of times.
Lightning has two types of accessories: head accessories and arm accessories. Head accessories affect only the current schema, but they give various passive effects that improve Lightning's success in battle, such as speed up ATB accumulation, deal more or resist elemental damage, or help her withstand interruption from enemies' attacks.
During a New Game+ file, opening a treasure sphere that was opened in the previous playthrough will not yield a duplicate head accessory, but ranks up the one present in Lightning's inventory, generally increasing its potential benefits and lowering its drawbacks. Head accessories can be upgraded twice. The first upgrade is indicated with the addition of a + to the item name, and the final upgrade will change the item name as well as gaining a final bonus. Opening a sphere that usually contains an accessory for a fourth time will instead contain 2,500 gil.
Arm accessories affect all three active schemata, giving general positive effects such as items' effects lasting longer, giving automatic buffs at the start of battle, making Lightning immune to certain status ailments, or making her stronger when she is on low health. During a New Game+ file, duplicates of arm accessories don't appear in the treasure spheres they were previously located in; 1,500 gil will be obtained instead.
Adornments are equips that are purely cosmetic. They are typically earned from quests, and often come in the form of items that are somehow related to the quest or the quest-giver. They come in various forms, such as hats, sunglasses, pins, medals, jewelry, or plush toys, that can be attached onto Lightning's character model and appear during in-game cut scenes.