I'm sorry, Zia. You are a complete trope of a female character. I wish I could say something better about her, since the game around her is so refreshingly unique and well-developed, but she is a total husk.
Zia exists to be sad and pretty. She hangs out in the Bastion and is sad and pretty. Her backstory is about how sad she was and how sad she is now. When conflict arises in the Bastion, it makes her sad. When difficult choices must be made, she is sad.
Be careful. If you pick the wrong ending, Zia will be sad (and pretty).
Zia is a morose little China doll – a beautifully tragic girl who has nothing to offer the story other than to drive the Kid's choices with her beautiful tragedy. If I were rating Zia on her ability to overcome stereotypically feminine roles in video games, she would get an F double-minus.
She's blank, useless, and completely forgettable.
Zulf, on the other hand...
Zulf stands as if in stalwart defiance of Zia's non-existant characterization and lackluster scenes. Zulf is likable and adorable from the start. It's hard not to be fond of him from the moment he's introduced. His pious, quiet nature coupled with the beautiful splash screen of his introduction to the Bastion make him the first truly lovable character on board. Sure, Rucks is cool, and the Kid is tough, but you can really feel for and care about Zulf.
As Zulf's story expands, we learn about his hard youth, we learn where he learned his calm and polite nature, we learn about his devotion to Caelondia/Ura relations. And we learn about his personal loss – the death of his fiance in the Calamity.
Zulf has a sort of beautiful tragedy of his own, but Zulf's exists for Zulf's story. Zulf is an actor, a driving force in the world. Where Zia has all the motivation of a doorstop, Zulf's personal story barrels in and completely derails the systematic progression that the game lets you grow accustomed to.
The moment where the Kid returns to the Bastion and finds it trashed, the cores missing, and Zulf gone is quite striking. The game acclimates you to the plodding, background-focused pace of the plot, so Zulf's betrayal comes out of left field – but in a good, shocking way, not at all tagged on or unbelievable.
Pictured: Zulf being interesting, Zia being sad.
Zulf becomes the villain, and he is a completely sympathetic one. I felt guilty battling the Ura, who had been given the short end of the stick again and again. But unlike with the Windbags, I felt like I was supposed to feel bad. The battle cries and death rattles of the Ura enemies when no one else has spoken for the entire game are chilling.
And then there's the moment where the Kid saves Zulf under a hail of Ura arrows. The scene is nothing short of gorgeous - the Kid trudging slowly forward, the Ura cease fire, and the sudden silence after a long battle filled with shouts and clatter. It should go on the list of best scenes in video gaming history.
Zulf is perfect. His story, his design, the scenes surrounding him – everything is perfect. I feel like many games struggle to have scenes of weight and value by video game standards. The rescue of Zulf would be a fitting climax for any storytelling medium – game, book, or movie.
Okay, that's enough praise. Time to close with some nagging gripes.