(This is Part 2 of a four-part post.)
Con: Roosterteeth Bit Off More Than It Could Chew
My number one criticism of Volume 4 is this: There are far too many separate story arcs. Miles and Kerry seem to have forgotten that they have only three hours max screen time to work with per season, and, as a consequence, lost control of their story by trying to cram too many plot threads (some of which were unnecessary) into one volume. All our girls needed to go through their own, individual growth, as did the remaining members of JNPR, but many of the character arcs seemed to lose any purpose or significance in the limited space of an already too expository volume. If nothing else, I’ll just come to terms with this volume as a transitional season, doing some dull, but clearly needed, work of returning the plot strings into a cohesive bundle after last volume’s scattering. In part, it had to be done in order to expand to a world stage from the preparatory phase of Beacon, but, without doubt, it could have been handled better.
Pro: Expanding World
Some of the bad news from this volume is because we’ve left Beacon, but a lot of the good news is that we’ve left Beacon. As sad as I was to say goodbye to the things we love and the innocence of youth, it is super satisfying to see an expanding, diverse world in which the plot can unfold. From new cultures to new characters, Vol. 4 makes clear that RWBY will ultimately be a grand epic in a fully realized universe, not just a Harry Potter-esque series that takes place largely in a boarding school. Here’s to future adventures in one of the cooler fantasy worlds to be created in the past decade.
Con: A World of Black and White: Where’s the Gray?
Nope, not talking about Gray Haddock, though there has been a sad lack of Roman Torchwick this season, owing to the baddie’s disappointing demise. I’m talking about the apparent viewpoints, legends, and history of Remnant, most of which can be categorized as saintly or pure evil, with little in between. With a few notable exceptions, the fourth volume sank further than ever into the trap of black and white interpretations, especially in the World of Remnant videos. I literally started laughing out loud at Qrow’s explanation of “The Great War,” which cast the conflict into the starkest terms of good vs. evil. Vale and Vacuo good, Atlas and Mystral evil. Only after they were defeated did Atlas and Mystral learn the error of their horrible ways (kind of) and agree to stop their completely one-sided aggression and racism. Let me tell you something, kids. Stories with this much black and white never feel authentic, because they aren’t. They don’t feel realistic because no large conflict has ever been clear-cut. Tolkien and some few others get away with it because their stories are written specifically as commentaries on the dynamic of good vs. evil, but what’s presented here is a human vs. human (and faunus) conflict, and those are never simplistic struggles of good against bad. Black and white explanations of events, however attractive they may at first seem, are always likely to be wrong. In fiction, just as in real life, explanations of this type are going to feel off, unbelievable, to a discerning audience. So far, RT has slipped into that trap. Hopefully it’s something they will correct in later seasons, because right now everything about the backstory feels stilted as a result. To fix it, they’re going to have to start showing differences in perspective that lead to conflict, not straight-up morality against immorality. They’ve done, meh, okay with that in a few areas, such as dissension within the White Fang, Ironwood’s hard, practical approach opposed to Oz’s calm idealism, etc. But so far, the series history is descending further and further into explanations of good, reasonable people pitted against others who seem to have no understandable motives.
Con: New Does Not Equate with Better – Departing the Original Style
The frickin’ animation! I have a love/hate relationship with this new look. It’s also listed as a Pro below, where you’ll find what I liked about the Maya graphics. But I’ll get right down to it on what I hated.
Let’s be clear, the visuals have never been the biggest draw for me when it comes to RWBY. A lot of anime fans I’ve spoken with have said that they couldn’t get into RWBY because the animation is so strange (which strikes me as comical, seeing as they are already fans of one of the stranger niches of storytelling in the world). I tend to consider solid plot, characterization, theme, etc. over the superficial parts of storytelling. To me, having great graphics/visuals is akin to a beautiful icing. When it’s there on an already wonderfully baked cake, it enhances my enjoyment, turning a tasty snack into a delectable delight. But it doesn’t work the other way around. You need a good cake – a good foundation – before icing even becomes a factor. If a tale has mediocre storytelling underneath the glitter of stunning visuals, I can fit all the craps I give about that tale into a thimble. Luckily, RWBY does have great story characteristics, so this is my complaint about the frosting. After all, if you put vanilla icing on a cake, I’ll still enjoy it, just not as much if it were chocolate.
When it comes to the animation, my complaint is this: It’s not the same. I know that sounds extremely petty, and I am aware that there were many extenuating circumstances recommending the switch, but it doesn’t change the fact that the story and characters feel a little different because the look has changed so drastically. I don’t know why Monty originally decided to go with Poser, but I would hazard a guess that part of the reason was that it had a decidedly 3D look that lent itself well to his vision of a blend between anime and video game style graphics. While RWBY, in the fourth volume, is still technically 3D, it looks much more 2D than in seasons before. It’s a change that admittedly brings it closer to a mainstream anime audience, but one which I consider to be a poor trade. RWBY is awesome because it is so unique, and its visual style has always been distinctly its own. I would encourage RT to put a premium value on the things that give RWBY its unique flavor in the future, and not discard them unless absolutely necessary.
Pro: And Sometimes New Is Better
Yes, I may prefer what I consider the canon RWBY visuals of Poser, but that won’t stop me from admitting that the new animation looks fantastic. Everything is more detailed, from facial expressions to backdrops. Compare similar shots from the first and fourth volumes, and your jaw will hit the floor from the difference. We’ve come a long way, Roosterteeth, from the black silhouettes of background crowds. Sometimes change isn’t for the better – I would have preferred a continuation in Poser – but sometimes pushing the boundaries pays off as well. In fact, I’m having a hard time figuring out how RT Animation plans to improve on the graphics in later volumes. Yeah – it looks that good. Gone are the awkward shots of the lower body (Poser had trouble with feet and leg movements), and each individual character looks even more distinct. Good work, RT. I’m not a supporter of the animation switch, but I will give credit where it’s due. And it is definitely due here.
Con: FIGHT! Fight, Fight, Fight…
It seems like many of my complaints can be boiled down to Monty did it different, and this one is no exception. You see, the combat this volume was just…disappointing to me. Once again, it didn’t feel the same as it has the past three volumes, and I’m going to point the finger at the fact that Monty is no longer at the helm.
See, in the past three volumes, combat has been governed by silent, understood rules that are never explicitly mentioned in dialogue, but can be observed in the fights themselves. Concussive shots, as from Crescent Rose or Nora’s hammer, can propel the wielder of the weapon that fired them in an opposite direction, as according to physics. Auras will “soak” damage done to an individual until their aura is depleted, and only then will they be susceptible to physical harm. Even semblances have rules that govern how they can work. For instance, Weiss’s glyphs can hold a person or object at a certain angle until released, allowing someone, say Ruby, to balance on one upside down or run up the side of a building lined with them.
Many of these rules seem to have been discarded in Vol. 4 for no apparent reason. Nora can now fire her hammer/cannon and fly in spirally circles. Ruby’s semblance now allows her to not just move super quickly, but also semi-teleport as a cloud of rose petals, disregarding the fact that no one has deigned to explain that. I mean, people are basically flying, changing direction midair on a whim, without any physical explanation for how. Monty’s fights made sense. They operated within defined, if only implied, boundaries that made their enactment plausible and their tactics satisfying. In Volume 4? Not so much. Instead, we get fights where the victorious strategy is: “Guys, we hit it harder.”
Yeah. Even if such a strategy doesn’t make any sense in that circumstance.
The combat, while a huge draw to RWBY for some, is much like the visuals for me. I loved the earlier fights in this series. They are so innovative and well-done. But at the same time, it’s the story and characters that hooked me. The fights, like good graphics, are just more awesome frosting on top of the RWBY cake. However, just because I don’t consider something essential doesn’t mean I’m not going to say something when I see it going downhill. My final verdict is that combat has definitely declined in this volume from the quality of its predecessors, whether because of the new animation, the absence of Monty, or simply changing stylistic choices.
The soundtrack hasn’t been released yet (unfortunately), but from what I noticed during the episodes, Vol. 4’s music is as strong as ever. Jeff Williams has had the tone of this show down since the first second, and it shows, because the music has always been one of RWBY’s brightest facets. From the fun of FNKI to the creepy drawl of Salem’s refrain to the rocking RWBY title themes, this show can be encapsulated in its music, and Vol. 4 is no different from its predecessors in that regard. Keep up the good work, Jeff and Casey! I’ll be on the lookout for the soundtrack release!