It's taken me ages to get around to this review. Somehow, other stuff has always come up, all of them automatically taking a slot in my schedule before RWBY. But we're here now, looking at the fourth volume of RWBY, after an excellent third volume.
Picking up weeks or months after the end of volume three, volume four sees the titular team having split up. In Mistral, Ruby travels towards Haven Academy with a grieving Jaune, Nora, and Ren, but their journey encounters problems when Qrow is poisoned and they encounter a Grimm from Ren's past. In Vale, Yang recovers from losing her arm, clashing with her father in the process. In Atlas, Weiss is stifled by pressure from her own father, along with her brother, culminating in her being imprisoned in the mansion. Meanwhile, Blake joins up with Sun to go to Menagerie and reconnect with her parents. In an unknown location, Salem's inner circle is revealed, and Cinder attempts to recover after being caught in the effect of Ruby's silver eyes, while elsewhere in Mistral, a farmboy wakes up one day to find Ozpin's mind inhabiting his own.
Probably the biggest change this volume has is a radically overhauled animation style -- using Autodesk Maya instead of Poser -- with characters having a more cel-shaded look. To go along with that, everyone has been redesigned, some to a major extent (like Blake) and some to a much smaller extent (like Sun). While I do broadly think that the new animation is better than the previous one, there is the problem in earlier episodes that fight scenes often end up looking weightless and awkward, as the animation team struggles to adapt to animating fast, frenetic fight scenes in an entirely new animation software (and one that doesn't have in-built physics).
Those problems have been largely sorted out by the end of the series, with the fight against the Nuckelavee being a nice slice of classic RWBY fight-scene-ery.
As far as the plot goes, it's thinly spread across the ground. With the volume split between six different storylines, there's not a lot of time to spend on any of them. As a result, Weiss and Yang get about two episodes worth of content each, Blake gets about three, Oscar and Cinder get about one between them, and Ruby gets about four. It's content spread over the entire volume, but it's still only a few episodes of content each either way.
The plot also suffers from overcomplicating things by throwing extra elements in, or 'Soushitsu Syndrome' as it will now be known. The story already had the Grimm, Aura, the Maidens, the Wizard, whatever Salem is, and the Silver-Eyed Warriors -- but now it also throws in two warring gods and four ancient relics that would let whoever controls them all rule the world. These are too many disparate elements, and the result is that the plot is very quickly becoming a mess.
I cannot stress enough that for a lot of stories, simplicity is key. Is your story as simple as it can be while still telling the story you want to tell? No? Then you need to simplify it. It's better to take a single element and explore it to its fullest than to take a dozen elements and end up with a tangled storyline.
That's not to say that you can't tell more complex stories, but the demands on the writing go up exponentially for every complicating element you have, and while RWBY's writers are certainly not terrible, deep plots and intricate stories do not seem to be their wheelhouse.
I did enjoy the volume, though, as I enjoy all RWBY. It's slower paced than the third volume, and less plot heavy, but that makes some sense -- that was the bombastic ending of the first arc, and this is the slow building start of the second arc, and in that function it works pretty well, taking the characters from the trauma of the end of volume three to a point where they can be more active in fighting back. It's a character development volume, essentially.
In other news, once again the show has taken another step towards being a professional production -- episodes are slightly longer, have fewer breaks for World of Remnant sections, and the improved animation brings the show more or less in line with shows like Star Wars: Rebels or Miraculous Ladybug. It's not quite there yet, but to go from 'very overtly a set of indie shorts' to 'very nearly professional' in four years is no mean feat.
All in all, this is a good volume. Certainly not the best volume of RWBY we've had, but probably the second best, and that's pretty good in my book. The next volume will be coming to our screens late this year, so there's not all that long to wait, which is always nice.