Just to clarify, this review is intended for the series as a whole; as in both Volumes 1 and 2. I felt it would make more sense to critique them both as a single entity, since they're both apparently meant to make up the entire first "season" (not sure how that's supposed to work). My review of the DVD product itself (which I purchased from the Rooster Teeth Store because of Amazon's stupidly delayed release date) is located towards the bottom, right below my critique of the series.
And now for my review of RWBY. Fair warning, it is very very long.
This series is...something. Definitely something. Whether it will ultimately prove to be either an amazing thing or a merely adequate thing will show itself as it progresses. But I have a lot of faith in it.
That being said, this anime-influenced series is by no means a bad thing. There may be naysayers who criticize it for being clichéd and underdeveloped, but they have all clearly missed the point of the show completely. While it doesn't quite reach the heights of Rooster Teeth's other big hit, the long-running science fiction comedy Red vs. Blue that has inspired thousands, RWBY is, in its own right, a masterpiece in the making. In fact, as animated series go, it ranks almost at the top in my book, just below Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (Red vs. Blue is my personal favorite show of all time, but I do not count it in this equation since it is depicted through machinima footage of the Halo games as well as Halo-influenced CGI in the later seasons, and is therefore not a completely original work of animation. But that's just me).
Let's start with the animation. Surprisingly enough, I've noticed quite a bit of criticism from the audience directed at it, particularly because of the frequent errors and glitches. In all honesty, it's some of the best animation I've ever seen. Utilizing a program called Poser, the world and characters of RWBY are all designed as something one might see in Japanese anime, but the style of the animation is frankly groundbreaking - nay, revolutionary. Something that's always bothered me about traditional 2D animation is how the characters always stand motionless on the screen unless they're speaking or performing an action, and even then it looks like slightly delayed stop-motion. Granted, some anime-influenced shows like Avatar and Korra have accomplished wonders with that style of animation, making it much more lifelike and interesting than many of their peers. But let's face it, the generic two-dimensional cartoon thing is a little outdated, and I'm shocked that I've never seen anyone else making that observation. The innovative animation in RWBY is the polar opposite of that, while impressively managing to retain the cartoon-style design of traditional animation. In other words, it's like traditional 2D animation, except the characters don't awkwardly freeze on screen without moving a muscle - instead they move with the motion frequency that they should have, which vastly increases the photorealism and grants access to a number of truly amazing action sequences. That, coupled with stylish, inventive and all around stunning character and location designs, makes the animation in RWBY a marvel to behold. My best description of it in a single sentence is that it merges the cartoon-like design of traditional 2D animation with the fluidity and depth of the more realistic 3D animation used in, say, Pixar films. Though slightly marred by a number of production glitches, such as occasional jerky character motions and some z-fighting (these are easy enough to overlook, especially if it's watched in high definition), RWBY's animation style represents exactly what cartoon animation should look like in this day and age. It could use a bit of fine-tuning (which we'll hopefully continue to see in the coming seasons), but it's a revolution of the animation industry that is long due. The late creator and lead animator Monty Oum was truly a visionary and mastermind. Rest in peace, sir. I applaud you along with all others who have contributed to one of the coolest looking animated productions I've ever seen. The other animation studios really need to step up their game.
On to the story. RWBY is set in the world of Remnant, home to several futuristic kingdoms. While technology is depicted as that of the modern age (more like a few decades ahead of present-day technology), most of the show's setting draws influence from medieval times and the fairy tale genre. Several characters in the show also allude to classic fairy tale characters, in both name and appearance (and in some cases, even backstory). The planet is inhabited by humans and faunus (people born with animal-like features who are often the focus of discrimination) and plagued by the creatures of Grimm (dark creatures who lack souls, take the forms of a variety of beasts, and are attracted to negative emotions). Within the kingdoms are a number of combat schools whose purposes are to train young men and women, both human and faunus, to become huntsman and huntresses who dedicate their lives to protecting the world and its people from the dangers of the Grimm. Huntsman/huntresses forge their own unique weapons during these schools, which are powered by Dust - a natural energy resource used for many purposes in the world of Remnant. The show's title is drawn from the first initials of its four main characters: Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna, and Yang Xiao Long, who are teamed together upon graduating to Beacon Academy (the team name is spelled RWBY and pronounced "Ruby"). There are many other teams who train at these schools, each consisting of four students each, whose team names are structured in the same format (for example, team JNPR is pronounced "Juniper" and team CRDL is pronounced "Cardinal").
Admittedly, the general storyline is nothing we haven't seen before; a world plagued by evil things, schools for gifted youngsters, discrimination and intolerance... Let's just say this all sounds a little too familiar. But what helps to distinguish the story from other works is the many different sides and character subplots that are added in and slowly built upon as the story progresses, with emphasis on how the characters evolve and work off of each other. It's similar to what made Eragon (the book, not the movie) such an engaging ride even though its plot was a virtual copy of the original Star Wars film. Not just that, but simply the manner in which the story of RWBY is presented carries with it a very unique vibe. It shows that derivative works such as this can be great works as long as they're done well. Unfortunately, that's not what a lot of people see when they look at RWBY, and they seem too closed-minded to notice any elements beyond the plot clichés. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion on the show, even if it's a wrong one. That being said, RWBY's fairly generic but intricate plot is satisfyingly entertaining; but while story structure is crucial, it's not always the one thing that makes something great. The other aspects of RWBY are perfect examples of this notion.
Tonally, RWBY is a bit lighter than one would expect given certain aspects of its premise, and its general sense of pop joy is definitely part of the appeal. There are more serious parts when necessary, some of them even pretty dark, but I dare say that the upbeat tone is a strong contribution to the show's enjoyability. The quirky dialogue is a prime example and is quite funny at times, managing to be so without resorting to the vulgarity of Red vs. Blue. Being anime-influenced, it is also not without its obligatory share of corny moments. I won't lie, there are a few brief parts here and there, particularly in Volume 1, where the dialogue is a little stiff - not cringeworthy like Twilight or the Last Airbender movie, but just kind of lazily delivered. It's only in a few short-lived spots however, and the dialogue is very well written, well performed and enjoyable for the most part.
The characters are one of the show's best strengths. One of the reasons for this is because, as with the characters in Avatar and Korra, they are so vivid that you could actually believe them to be real, and you grow to love some of them so much that you want them to be real. While most of the characters may seem like stereotypes at first glance, you will discover later that that is not the case at all. The members of team RWBY are smartly written - their personalities are very different and instantly recognizable, but they all give you a good reason to relate to them, and the way they work off of each other is one of the best parts. More than this I cannot say without spoiling it, but the best thing I can say about the four main protagonists is calling them an all-female version of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the strongest characters, however, aren't even part of the main protagonist team. In fact, two of the best in the series are Jaune Arc and Pyrrha Nikos, both of team JNPR. Again, can't say much without giving anything away, but they are beautifully developed characters, and the writers have done an all around fantastic job of making their characters both relatable and distinguishable. That said, there are a LOT of characters who are somewhat underdeveloped and who could really use some development, like the villains for example, who we'll hopefully find out more about in future installments. Regardless, it's still early on in the series and most characters have only just been introduced. Developing them is sure to take time, and doing it for so many characters at once is no easy task.
Also, the voice actors/actresses are top notch. Considering the fact that most of the Rooster Teeth crew claim to not be professional actors, they all throw themselves into their roles wonderfully and put just enough depth and emotion into the performances to keep them interesting, and also provide impressive chemistry between one another.
And now, the moment you've all been waiting for. It's the most universally praised aspect of the show. It's...the music.
What can I say about the music of RWBY besides HELL YEAH. Jeff Williams, the composer and multi-instrumentalist behind the hard rock/score-driven soundtracks for Seasons 8-10 of Red vs. Blue, delivers a gem (no pun intended) in the form of the RWBY soundtrack. The score itself, composed by Williams with contributions from Alex Abraham and Steve Goldshein, is phenomenal, masterfully ranging from beautiful themes that keep consistent with the light fairy tale-ish tone of the series to fast-paced and epic action pieces, along with darker cues for the more serious parts, all the while ingeniously incorporating a wide variety of classical instrumentation.
But that's only half of the awesomeness. Accompanying the score is an album of epic hard rock songs, featuring the mesmerizing singing voice of Williams' daughter Casey Lee Williams, with lyrics that evoke several of the show's themes. We not only get the heroic lyrics of the fast, punk rock-ish introductory songs "This Will Be the Day" and "Time to Say Goodbye", we also get songs with powerful, deep lyrics like "Red Like Roses Parts I and II" and "From Shadows", along with lovely mellow songs like "Wings" and "All Our Days". No matter what mood the music takes, it's all ingeniously put together, solidly recorded, and overall an amazing and highly unique experience. Hell, even the poppy ballads like "Gold", "Shine" and "Dream Come True" are catchy, well composed and nicely performed; this is coming from someone who tends to avoid cheesy modern pop songs (I am, in my heart, a metalhead). The song "Sacrifice" from the end credits of Volume 2 is my personal favorite song in the series; Casey's vocal work on that one is absolutely mind-blowing.
It should be noted that a lot of the songs don't make much of an appearance in the actual show (a few of them were also created specifically for the trailers) and are overshadowed by the score. But whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, both the songs and the score can be heard in all their glory on the official soundtrack releases. If you're a fan of the show, hard rock, classical music, general film music, or just awesome effing music period, you should check out the RWBY soundtracks (Volumes 1 and 2 are both available separately).
Bottom line is, RWBY is easily the best soundtrack to a web series ever made, and even ranks pretty far up there with some of the great TV soundtracks. Well done, Jeff and Casey (Alex and Steve too). Well done indeed.
Now that I've gotten all that out of the way, it's time to shift focus to the elements of this series that drag it down slightly. The aspects of RWBY that are probably the most widely criticized are the pacing and focus of the story. There have been two full volumes so far; approximately the first half of Volume 1 was a reasonably-paced origin story with consistent focus, but it slowed down quite a bit in the second half while spontaneously shifting focus to totally different character subplots, and the slow pace continued leading into Volume 2. When I say slow I don't mean it tones down the action - there are still plenty of exciting action scenes. I mean to say that there's a rather short supply of compelling plot developments that really move the series forward. Arguably more important things happen in Volume 2 than in the better part of Volume 1, but still not a lot. This is not detrimental to the show's enjoyability since it becomes more devoted to furthering the character development, shifting the narrative focus to different characters from time to time (the shifts in focus feel much more natural and less forced in Volume 2), and retaining the light-hearted humor and playfulness. There are also several emotionally powerful moments that will hit you right in the feels. But at times, it just feels like there's some key element to making a great story that's missing from this show. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that we know little to nothing about the main villains in terms of character, as I mentioned briefly earlier in the review. We get a couple of pretty badass scenes with the villains, but by the end of the second volume we've only seen hints at what their master plan is and we don't even know what their motivation is. Talk about a cock-tease villain setup! However, the good thing that comes out of this scenario is the vast amount of potential there is for making these villains compelling. I am confident that the writers are about to deliver something amazing in the next few installments.
Which brings me to the summary of the series, what I hope will become of it in the future, and the best redeeming factor of its relatively slow pace. Yes, it's pretty slow and the villains are underdeveloped, but as I mentioned above we do at least get a few hints at what their plan is, especially in the second volume. That, coupled with the steady increase in both action and screen time for the villains, goes to show that the series is gradually building itself up to something incredibly epic beyond belief, and the spectacular action scenes, humor, upbeat tone and precious moments of development for our heroes are already making it more than worth the wait. Who knows, maybe things will speed up a lot in Volume 3, and Volume 4 will have a climactic feel to it. But in any case, the fact remains that the series has only just begun. Most shows are very slow in the beginning and really pick up shortly thereafter. This is why I strongly urge the fairly small portion of fans who have been disappointed thus far to not give up on the series. If you do that now I guarantee you will miss out on some insanely awesome stuff.
And to those who have yet to start watching the show, just remember: the first two volumes are all character introduction and story set-up. Don't get overly excited when there's a big action sequence. I mean, you can get a little excited and appreciate the effort that was put into it, but just not overly excited. Try doing whatever Bruce Banner does to keep himself from hulking out.
As for which volume is the better of the two, the second (this one) is definitely superior. The animation is a huge step up, there's a slightly heavier focus on character relationships, there's more humor and heartwarming moments, the dialogue sounds more confidently written, and it has a heftier amount of thrilling high-stakes action than most of Volume 1. Furthermore, the ending is a good temporary resolution (with some minor cliffhangers) that leaves you amped up and ready for Volume 3.
In closing, I will say that I have never seen anything quite like RWBY. It may have its minor faults, but it is what it is. And what it is is astonishing, fun, and simply marvelous. And as I said at the beginning of my review, I have a lot of faith in it.
RIP, Monty Oum.
DVD PRODUCT REVIEW:
Though this section is focused on critiquing the DVD release, I would like to start by saying that the RWBY DVDs have become the catalyst for me finally deciding to upgrade from buying DVDs to buying Blu-Rays. That being said, these discs haven't put me off buying DVDs completely; I even plan to continue buying certain things on DVD as opposed to Blu-Ray to keep my collections of certain film series or TV shows nice and consistent. But this critique should demonstrate pretty well why the DVDs are simply not watchable formats for this particular series.
First off, the disc has a very nice amount of special features. I'm glad to see that RT isn't placing such strict limitations over the special content of their DVDs while giving the Blu-Rays everything like so many other companies are doing nowadays (looking at you, Marvel). Yes, there are a couple extra things on the Blu-Ray version, but the DVD still has most of the good stuff, not the least of which is four (yes, four) audio commentaries from the directors, cast, crew and animators, which are both funny and riveting. But while they are very nice additions, extras in general don't really get me overly excited these days and I don't tend to place too much importance on them when buying a movie or show. Where the DVD is severely lacking is in the department of visual quality.
Now I've watched many DVDs over the years and I think most of them look totally fine. The quality obviously isn't considered spectacular these days due to the superior Blu-Ray format slowly becoming the standard (and with more people being turned on to Digital HD media), but most DVDs, from what I've seen, have a pretty good bit-rate to act as a sort of smokescreen for the low resolution (and they can be upscaled to look a bit better if you have the right player). In other words, the video processing still manages to make them look fantastic most of the time despite their low default resolution. Sadly, however, the 720x480 pixel count appears painfully obvious on RWBY when it's transferred to the DVD medium. This is a huge issue with both volumes of RWBY on DVD. To be specific, several scenes fall victim to annoyingly high levels of pixelated imagery and interlacing that are rather difficult to overlook, with barely half of the scenes making it out okay. I wouldn't mind too much if it was just in one or two places, but it's practically everywhere. Whenever there's a fast-paced action sequence (or an awesome dance scene, in the case of Episode 7 of Volume 2) the pixelation is just all over the place. It looks less like an actual DVD and more like a crappy DVD rip. Another bizarre thing is that the interlacing seems to become more rampant as the volume progresses. These DVDs were obviously thrown together in a hurry without proper care being given during the compression process. Or maybe this is simply how RWBY looks when translated to the DVD resolution. What the hell do I know.
The point is, watching this show in such mediocre quality is a slap in the face to both the viewers and the creators. The visual style is one of the defining aspects of RWBY that make it such a beautiful show, and seeing it represented by bad, inconsistent picture quality that doesn't even measure up to the quality of other DVDs makes me want to weep. Take my advice: if you watch RWBY, buy something better than the DVDs. Even if you're not too picky about quality you'll still want something better looking than this. Hell, even the online versions of the individual episodes would be preferable. Unlike most shows and movies that can be thoroughly enjoyed in any commercially available format, RWBY was made to be watched in high definition. As I said earlier, it has become the catalyst for my decision to finally start augmenting my collection with Blu-Ray discs, starting with both volumes of RWBY. The only major quality issue the Blu-Ray versions have is an excessive amount of very pronounced interlacing that, for reasons unknown, pollutes two specific chapters in the first volume and four in the second volume and is otherwise only mildly noticeable throughout the rest of the series (banding and aliasing are also slight issues, but they don't stick out nearly as much as the interlacing in those select few episodes). Then again, I am watching them using a cheap BD drive, so it could be the interlacing in those specific episodes is caused by faulty instructions between the disc and either the drive or my hardware, and I just need to get a dedicated Blu-Ray player. But while they may still have quality issues, the Blu-Rays are the only commercially available format that fully allow RWBY to bathe in its visual wonder. If you don't have a Blu-Ray device, I would honestly recommend getting one just to watch this show. Trust me, it'll be worth it.
Disappointing quality aside, this is a very solid DVD release if you're looking for some interesting bonus material. Other fascinating special features outside the commentaries include 4 world-building "history lesson" videos narrated by Jen Taylor (the "mysterious narrator" from the Volume 1 prologue who is well known for voicing Cortana in the Halo franchise and reprising her role in Windows 10) and 4 behind-the-scenes production diaries (the Blu-Ray has extended versions of these). I would like to add, however, that it would have been a nice touch to include redeem codes for free Digital HD copies like they're doing with a lot of DVDs these days. It would have served as partial compensation for the bad quality. Just putting that out there.