This review will contain spoilers for RWBY Volume 3.
Volume 3 of the web-series RWBY was a game changer; it took the comedy-action-adventure formula that was familiar and comfy, with the perky characters we had come to know and love, and then ripped them all apart. The school halls we walked in with our heroes are now gone, the team known as RWBY has literally disbanded, with every member now no longer in communication with each other, and a new but powerful villain has taken her place in the cast and is not waiting around to further tear apart what she fractured. As the world-building and elements of ‘the bigger picture’ had been building for a long while, the switch-up in Volume 3 wasn’t a slap in the face to the fans, but carefully planted and handled brilliantly to wow audiences and reveal something special. So, understandably, Volume 4 was met with much hype and expectation, with many hoping to continue where Volume 3 left off. Usually when a TV, video game, book or movie series takes a dark and/or dramatic turn, the follow-up is normally expected to be something bigger or better, almost as if the creators have to ‘one-up’ themselves. But this tactic runs the risk of cheapening it all; if you keep attempting to make every big bad even worse than previous one, or just throw twists and turns into the audience’s faces just because you can, it’ll only achieve the opposite effect: boredom – or worse, frustration. Does RWBY run this risk, or does it manage to continue their good streak?
Volume 4 starts 6-8 months after the fall of Beacon Academy, and the RWBY team members have been scattered across the world. Ruby is now travelling on foot with Jaune, Ren and Nora to Haven academy, Weiss is back at her home and stuck with her family who have little sympathy for her experiences, Blake is travelling to Menagerie to make amends with her mother and father, and Yang is trying to come to terms with the fact that her life is forever changed by the loss she experienced in her last battle. However, Salem’s forces are gathering, and their ultimate plan is only just getting started, will Ruby and the others be prepared for it this time?
To answer the question I raised in the opening paragraph: yes, RWBY Volume 4 follows on from Volume 3 very well. Fans seem to forget that the first two volumes of RWBY were fun, creative but also subtly serve as build-up for Volume 3, which was an explosive of emotions and actions. It was a great climax, but the best stories allow for each major plot change to have downtime afterwards to make the effect be felt by the characters, otherwise the twists themselves become meaningless or just shock value for the audience. Volume 4 is full of emotion and characters reeling from said events; it may not be as much of an action rollercoster for most of the volume’s duration, but the time taken out for the characters is necessary to help them grow and move forward to the next big battle. This is achieved excellently through the RWBY members splitting up and being able to bounce off characters either they don’t normally pair off with or have newly introduced cast to expand their social circle and backstories.
Weiss’ story arc isn’t about what she feels as a result of last season’s battle, but an external conflict. We’ve had lip service paid to her rich family upbringing before but here we actually see how her family and upper-class upbringing is now at odds with Weiss’ new perspective on life as a result of her time in Beacon. Her character doesn’t progress much, but she has a stronger drive that allows her to get from point A to point B that leads into the next volume. Ruby also has little to no character growth this season, which is a touch disappointing considering her new-found power introduced at the end of Volume 3, but she’s ultimately the glue that holds her new team together. The team gets a lot more attention and powerful character moments (in regards to Ren and Nora, it was long overdue) and is also the main driving force of the plot as they collide with the main villains’ ultimate plan. Also, on their travels, the world of Remnant expands dramatically as we’re introduced to new towns and enemies, in Ruby and Blake’s story where the latter journeys to her old home and we get a much deeper look into the prejudice against the Faunus race. Since Blake last saw her parents she joined the terrorist group White Fang, only to find out later what they really were. Despite trying to move on at Beacon, her White Fang past has come back to haunt her, so naturally she feels the need to go back home. Blake has always been the stoic of the group, but seeing her open up a lot more to her family is a welcome look into her regrets and growth since we were first introduced to her. To balance her out though, she’s paired off with Sun, a character introduced in Volume 2 as no more than a comic relief but the pair actually have great chemistry. As he is a Faunus, he has first-hand experience with difficulties with the White Fang and treatment from humans, but his much sunnier disposition helps Blake see a different point of view into her experiences and where to go from here.
Then last, but not least, there’s Yang, who arguably suffered the most out of Volume 3, not only losing her school, friends, and being unable to stop her sister from leaving, but also losing an arm. As a physical fighter, she can never go back to what she used to be, and so her arc is, of course, dealing with PTSD. Seeing her broken and stuck in her grief at the beginning of the volume season is heart-breaking, but necessary, and as we see her slowly begin to accept new technology to help her along, and asking for support when needed, it’s a rewarding development to see unfold. It plays out slightly better when watching the series as episodes over a longer stretch of time than as a movie format where it makes the arc feel compressed but it’s still one of the more emotionally satisfying moments of the volume.
As well as a transformation of story tone, there’s been a definite change in animation quality; the jump between volumes is very noticeable but for the better. Volume 4 is more vibrant, bursting with details, less stiff movements and more variety of background designs that really bring the world to life. This also carries through with the Grimm; as the combat has moved away from the school, the battlefields are now much bigger, and so are the enemies. We open on a giant that can destroy a forest in the first episode, a massive Chinese-like dragon attacking a boat full of people later on, and the last Grimm fought in the volume is inspired by Orcadian mythology with very creepy results. Before, the Grimm designs were very repetitive and plain, but that criticism was correctly addressed in this volume and so battles are something to look forward to in a new way. Speaking of battles, the staff try their very hardest to continue Monty Oum’s legacy, however a few cracks are starting to show. The fights are fine when it’s one-on-one, but in a show like RWBY where battles often have large teams of four against several opponents, the show seems to struggle to juggle all their actions at once. It focuses on one or two fighters but then the audience is left wondering what the others are doing – just standing around waiting for their go, like a turn-based RPG? They’re still fun to watch, but they’re not as thrilling as in the past.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include trailers for other Rooster Teeth properties, ‘A Grimm Introduction’ which has the production team discuss the different monsters featured in the show, a production diary featurette, photos of the crew, and five animated shorts that expand on the world of Remnant, narrated by the characters. There’s also crew and director’s commentary that can be turned on for the episodes, with English subtitles only available, and options to either watch the volume as a long movie or broken up into episodes as it was originally released.
Rooster Teeth took a gamble by completely changing the status quo and it’s paid off; RWBY Volume 4 is an emotional journey for our heroes and the audience, where we see our favourite characters continue to grow in new ways and learn after the previous volume’s events. It may not be as explosive and dark as Volume 3 but it’s a great follow-up that properly sets up the pieces for the next chapter of the story, with good emotional arcs and fun fight sequences.