Eager to check out crazy, over-the-top fight scenes with imaginative weapons? Well, RWBY Volume 3 certainly has that, as well as a healthy helping of sadness and despair. [Note: This review contains spoilers for this and the previous two seasons of RWBY. For a more non-spoiler look at the series, check out our review of season one.]
RWBY Volume 3 is the first truly dark chapter we have seen in RWBY thus far. It starts somewhat weakly as your standard "tournament arc" of a fighting story. However, the back-end of the season serves as a climax to everything before it as all the villains' plans come to a head. Along the way, we learn more about our main cast and see them continue to develop as they near adulthood.
Ruby herself is a rather static character: noble, innocent and pure. While the rest of the cast struggle with becoming adults, Ruby is only 15. So instead of watching her change this season, we see why she is the way she is — namely, the introduction of her uncle Qrow. In Ruby's eyes, Qrow is a classic rogue adventurer. He travels the world going on adventures and helping people, which is exactly what Ruby wants to do.
Yang's big character notes come as she is forced to deal with the consequences of being outsmarted rather than outfought. While we, the audience, know what is really going on, Yang has to deal with the idea that the world views her as either a sadistic bully or psychotic. When even Blake reveals her doubts, Yang is on the edge of having her spirit broken — a break that is completed with the loss she suffers in the season's climax.
Blake, on the other hand, continues to struggle with her past, her former abusive relationship with White Fang leader, Adam, and her tendency to be a scaredy cat (pun intended). Running away from her problems, or rather the fear that she will run away from her problems, rules Blake's actions. She sees herself as a coward and tries to prove that she isn't one. And, in the climax, this fault is clearly her undoing when she enters into a fight she has no chance of winning.
Like with Ruby, we learn more about Weiss through the introduction of her idol: her older sister Winter. Winter is prim, proper and strict in public while loving and caring in private. We also learn that while Weiss is talented and hard working, she has one technique she is unable to do: summoning. This is likely because of the contradiction at the core of Weiss herself.
While Weiss wants to be a protector of all, she is, nonetheless, prejudiced against Faunus because of the terrorist attacks against her friends and family when she was growing up. She hates Faunus but knows that one of her best friends is one, and a former terrorist at that. And while Weiss has made great strides in accepting Faunus since season one, prejudice isn't something that can just be turned off. Yet, in the climax of this season, Weiss' sense of right and wrong finally overcomes her prejudice as she selflessly puts herself between a Faunus classmate she barely knows and an incoming mortal blow.
While last season focused mainly on Jaune when it came to characters outside the core team, this season focuses on Pyrrha. From day one, Pyrrha has been the golden child of the academy, living up to any and all expectations. But unfortunately, this has crafted her into a person who feels the need to live up to said expectations. Over the course of Volume 3, she is forced to choose between what others expect of her — to sacrifice her very spirit to become a living goddess; and what she truly wants — to become a huntress and live alongside Jaune.
The scenes surrounding Pyrrha's struggle are by far the most emotional in RWBY thus far as Jaune tries in ignorance to help and only makes it worse for her. And in the end, even after the choice is taken out of Pyrrha's hands, she chooses to do what is right and expected of her, even if said path is obviously suicidal.
RWBY Volume 3 is a season of transition. On the visual side, the series looks better than ever with both character models and backgrounds more detailed than ever before. The direction and cinematography are scores better than in past seasons. The non-action scenes are now shot at creative angles with clever camera movements (as opposed to the straight side-view and head-on shots common in the earlier seasons) and make the most of the fact that the camera isn't bound by the practical nature of real world cinematography. This makes the show interesting to watch even when little action is going on.
And finally we come to the elephant in the room. With the unfortunate death of series creator and main fight choreographer Monty Oum, the rest of the team has had some impossible shoes to fill. Expectedly, the fight scenes in Volume 3 are a clear step down from past seasons — something that sadly plagues a season that spends a large portion of its run time on a fighting tournament.
Fights penned by Monty Oum tended to tell a story or give character insight. This is largely missing from the tournament fights of Volume 3. Instead, we are treated to little more than fight choreography with flashy effects. While the fights are still above average in the eye-candy department, being visually cool only is not enough to carry a show.
That said, there is at least one standout fight in the series: Velvet versus the Paladin mecha. This fight is excellent on many different levels. One level is the obvious: It's a love letter to Monty Oum. Often it is a frame-for-frame homage to some of the most iconic scenes he animated, and thus shows why his loss is so heartbreaking.
On another level, it widens the fictional world of RWBY. It is natural to assume we are following the best or most important characters in an anime-inspired story like this. But through Velvet we see that a heretofore unremarkable background character could easily be the most powerful student by leaps and bounds (pun still intended). This in turn makes us, as viewers, know that we are only seeing a small portion of a story filled with many more heroes, heroes that may surpass our protagonists in yet-to-be-imagined ways.
On top of all that, this scene is also Weiss' aforementioned character defining moment as she overcomes her prejudice and realises a bit more of her true potential.
Oh, and the music is also pretty damn awesome.
**Spoilers About the Ending Begin**
While Ruby and our other heroes have faced victories and defeats alike over the past two seasons, Volume 3 is the first truly dark chapter in the story. The latter half of the season has psychological breakdowns, torture and dismemberment. (Side note: Blake's decapitation and Yang's dismemberment are both perfectly, artfully framed and wonderfully shocking, again thanks to the greatly improved direction this season.) Of course, the darkest moments come with the deaths of (at least) two prominent supporting characters.
The first of these deaths is Penny. Narratively, the point of this death is to add tension and danger to the story — that is, if Penny can die, then no one is safe. However, to people familiar with this trope, the tension is actually lowered. With the "shock death" out of the way, remaining characters are usually safe. Moreover, while graphic, Penny's death almost feels like the cheapest possible version of the trope since, after all, Penny is a robot and that calls the permanence of her "death" into question.
What's great, though, about this "shock death" trope is how it leaves us totally unprepared for the second death: Pyrrha's. From her introduction in the first season, it was more than a little obvious Pyrrha would die — after all, she is based on a legendary figure famous for dying (Achilles). However, the death of Penny only two episodes before called this into question as the "shock death" was already out of the way. Even as Pyrrha heads into her suicidal battle against Cinder, it seems like she will somehow make it out alive, especially once Ruby and Weiss head off to rescue her. Because of this, the scene has real shock and weight when Pyrrha is brutally killed in front of Ruby.
**Spoilers About the Ending End**
One of the minor yet nagging problems in RWBY Volume 3 is the transitional scenes that serve to set up the fight scenes and other cool moments. The worst of these involves a group of robots turning on Weiss and Blake. The villain-controlled robots shoot at the two girls, causing them to fall to the ground in surprise. Instead of continuing to shoot (and kill them), the robots instead stop firing, move in to surround the girls, then wait for the two to get up and arm themselves before the battle continues. While it indeed sets up the fight, it also makes no sense.
Another moment involves Qrow and General Ironwood. The scene is set up to look like Qrow is attacking Ironwood while in reality he is saving Ironwood from an unseen Grimm. While it is undeniably cool to see the transformation of Qrow's scythe and the slow-motion killing of the Grimm, it makes little sense that Qrow would watch Ironwood protest his innocence for several seconds, transform his scythe and then jump over Ironwood to kill the Grimm instead of simply saying "behind you!" or something similar.
Of course, the "rule of cool" — that if something looks cool enough, the implausible logic behind it is forgivable — has always been a major part of RWBY. However, relying on it when not strictly necessary builds up negatively over time.
The other nagging problem with Volume 3 is the powers central to its conflict: those of the Fall Maiden. As an addition to the series' lore, the Fall Maiden and her powers add a new layer to the magical world of Remnant. Unfortunately, the plot of this season requires someone with her godlike powers to be invincible and yet beaten by three teens in an ambush, which is an obvious contradiction. The result is that her powers don't seem nearly as overwhelming and unbeatable as the other characters exposit. In fact, in both the Fall Maiden's battle against Cinder and Cinder's battle against Pyrrah, those with the Fall Maiden's powers seem powerful but quite beatable, which in turn lessens the dramatic tension the godlike powers are supposed to provide.
Going forth into their fourth season, the creators of RWBY need to be careful. They have created a lore-filled world with numerous unique weapons in addition to various forms of magic. While there are clearly rules behind each, many have not been explained in the show proper, though many have been in podcasts and live events. While the show is comprehensible at current to casual viewers, it is quickly approaching the point where this will no longer be true. While godlike powers and crazy weapons are no doubt cool, without clearly defined limits, tension and drama can quickly disappear from a story built around combat. If you don't know what's possible, you can't know if you should be worried or not.
Although the fight choreography is an (understandable) step down from previous seasons, RWBY Volume 3 is a marked improvement in both story and cinematography. It is a strong ending to RWBY's first arc, bringing together past seasons' lingering plotlines and showing that there are real, mortal stakes for our heroes.
My only fear is that going forward, we will return to the status quo all to soon instead of allowing our heroes time to explore what they have lost and to build new and deeper relationships as they journey forward. But wherever the story heads next, I am eager to be along for the ride.