Super powers. You love them (maybe, I don’t know you), I love ’em, and every fantasy fiction writer in the world seems to love them. Granted, I’m no better, but that’s for another day. A day that will come a few years down the line, but it will come.
Whether it’s magic, internal energy, or some other source of mystical energy, it’s hard to find an action adventure series in an even mildly fantastical setting without some sort of special powers. Dragon Ball has Ki, Naruto has Chakra, comic books have radioactive induced super powers, and the list goes on and on.
RWBY has Aura and something called a ‘Semblance’. And it’s… really poorly executed.
Now, much like the previous critique I made of this series (which you can find here) I feel the need to clarify: this is not me taking a shit on this series. Again: I love RWBY. Like, a lot. It’s because I love this series that I feel the need to criticize it. I want to see the things I love improve so that I can love them more.
With that being said, I’m going to rip this series another new asshole now. Just know that, if you disagree with me, it’s fine. You have your opinion, and I have mine. I’m not trying to take it away from you. Let’s all just respect each others thoughts as individual humans and have a civil discussion about the topic at hand.
Don’t you love the fact that you need to clarify these things on the internet?
Anyways, getting back on subject: RWBY’s power system sounds simple on paper. Everyone has an Aura, which is the energy of the soul. With that Aura comes a Semblance, a unique power for each person’s soul. They come in a ton of different varieties, such as Ruby’s super speed, Yang’s rage/pain induced power up, Nora’s lightning absorption, Qrow’s bad luck field (we’ll get to that), and the list just goes on and on.
Sounds simple, right? Well… it’s got more problems than it doesn’t.
We’ll start with the powers themselves. To me, the most interesting super heroes are the ones with powers that directly affect or are affected by the kind of person they are. A great example of this is Batman’s Poison Ivy. She loves plants and nature, so naturally her experiments would cause a mutation that gave her telepathic control over plants. The same can be said about the cold but loving Mr. Freeze, or the goofy but terrifying gadgets of the Joker. Their personalities and passions directly affect their powers, and vice versa.
The thing about powers that a lot of people don’t get is that they would affect you psychologically, or how your own personality would change the ability. Super human abilities are at their most interesting when they’re perfectly fit for that particular character.
RWBY doesn’t have this. Each character’s power doesn’t feel tailored to them. They just feel randomly assigned to each character. Ruby can go really fast for… some reason. Pyrra (I feel like I’m spelling that wrong, but whatever) can use Magneto style magnetism because… why not? Nora can absorb lightning because of her… electric personality?
At no point in the writing process did anyone on the staff stop to ask ‘Why does this character have this power?’ or ‘How would this power affect their fighting style’ or ‘How would it change their personality’. And because they didn’t think about it at all, it makes the ‘Semblance’ system feel much more hollow and generic, when it could’ve made the world feel fantastical and alive.
And then there’s the next problem: the Dust system, the ‘Silver Eyes’, and the ‘Magic’ system.
See, the ‘Semblance’ system is accompanied by two other systems that are far more sensical and interesting. Now, this isn’t inherently a problem. Having multiple fantastical power systems can make the world feel bigger and more dynamic. For example, having a man-made power that normal people can use and a special unique power for special individuals can create some incredibly interesting drama.
For example, look at the Last Airbender. Benders are the most important and powerful people in the world, while the people who can’t Bend have to find other ways to keep up. It’s not a huge focus in the show itself, but it opens up some interesting ideas that make the world feel alive.
The problem comes when the other systems are far more interesting and when their very existence makes no sense.
We’ll start with Dust. Dust is a crystalline powder that has different uses depending on the color. For example, Black Dust increases gravity, which can help you walk up walls and such, while White Dust decreases it. The two together can make a cool combo that launches something (or someone) through the air.
Which they did. And it was awesome.
There’s also more basic Dust, such as the Red fire Dust, Blue ice Dust, Yellow lightning Dust, and so on. It’s simple, interesting, and the applications are cool. If none of the other systems existed and it was all Dust, this post wouldn’t exist.
Then there’s the rest. Such as the extremely problematic and underdeveloped ‘Silver Eyes’.
Since the end of season three, they’ve been building up a special power held within Ruby’s Silver Eyes. According to Qrow, those with Silver Eyes, such as Ruby and her mother, are ‘the strongest warriors alive’.
Because the writers realized that, without that, Ruby has nothing to make her interesting or stand out.
Now, this is extremely cliche, but I’m a fan of this cliche. Dumb eye-related super powers are my jam. I’m sure if they actually developed this further and did something with it, it could be super fucking cool. If it became the RWBY equivalent of the Avatar State, then I’d fucking fall head over heels for it. It seems way cooler and more useful than a Semblance.
The problem lies in the writing. If these eye powers are so powerful, why the hell hasn’t Ruby asked about them? Why hasn’t she studied them, or tried to activate them again? Come on girl, you’re sitting on a wellspring of power so deep that literally everyone in the world is afraid of it! At least try to use it!
And then, to wrap it up, there’s the ‘Magic’. Now, much like Ruby’s Silver Eyes, Magic is exclusive to a few characters, and not a common thing. As far as we know, only the Seasonal Maidens (which is an issue for another critique) can use magic, and their magical powers are based on which season they are. Now, we haven’t seen a whole lot of these powers, so I can’t go in depth, but it still contributes to the problem.
Aside from Dust, all of these should be powerful varieties on a Semblance. Not only would it make the world feel that much simpler to understand and less cramped, but it would add some interesting plot developments.
For example, let’s look at Ruby. If she didn’t have her ‘Super Speed’ semblance (which is stupid) and instead had the ‘Silver Eyes’ semblance that she couldn’t use, it would solve a lot of her issues. Since she seemingly doesn’t have a Semblance, the other characters would look down on her, with some treating her like she’s worthless and others treating her like a helpless child. So, to make up for it, she trains super hard and develops an incredible skill with her scythe, thus earning the respect and even admiration of her peers. It’s only when push comes to shove and everything goes to shit that she accidentally triggers the power of the Silver Eyes and discovers that she actually has the strongest Semblance of all.
Does this fix all of Ruby’s issues as a character? Hell no. But it does make her feel more relatable and admirable, as her lack of power would force her to work super hard to get to where she is now. But no. She has to have both Super Speed and the unbeatable Silver Eyes.
Why? Because she’s the protagonist. Fuck you, shut up.
The same can be said for the Seasonal Maidens. Instead of giving them Magical whatever powers that are passed down from one to the next, just make it a unique Semblance. If you need to have the powers be passed down from one generation to the next for the story, then pull an All Might One-For-All and let them give their unique Aura to the next person. Maybe they can only give it to someone without a Semblance, so they have to go looking for a successor in order to keep the power going. Or maybe one of them decides it’s time for the cycle to end and tries to die without passing on her powers, thus screwing over both the heroes and the villains by forever sealing off access to the mystical artifacts.
Which is another issue for a different post.
All of these ideas coincide with the basic rules and concepts for the Semblance system, help the world feel alive and varied without feeling too cramped and confusing, and create hundreds of different possibilities for where the plot could go. Do they fix all the problems? No. But they do fix the majority of them.
And it took me all of thirty minutes of thinking to come up with them. These aren’t ground breaking ideas, folks. I’m not some creative genius. I’m just a guy who put thought into how this system works.
Thought that the writers apparently haven’t put in there.
Me bullying the writers aside, there are still plenty of issues with the Semblance system. But I’ll elect to only tackle one more before I go today. The rules.
See, in a fight, the rules of each combatants abilities is important. If the audience knows these rules and understands them, it can create tension that increases the investment in the battle. When the fighter is at the end of their rope due to their powers limitations, it puts us on the edge of our seats. When they break the rules and surpass their current abilities, it feels explosive, satisfying and shocking, which are all must have feelings for any fight.
Take the Deku VS Todoroki fight from season two of My Hero Academia. At this point, we know the limits of Deku’s power: he can fire off powerful blasts of air by breaking his fingers. Going into the fight, he has access to eight fingers (no, I don’t count the thumbs) with which to fight Todoroki with. When he burns through four of them within the first few minutes of the bout, then throws away his entire other arm in a moment of desperation, we the audience expect the fight to be at it’s end.
But then Deku does something completely unexpected: he reuses one of his broken fingers to fire off another blast. This breaks the rules of his powers in a satisfying and sensical way, and it creates the feeling that Deku’s breaking through his limits and giving it his all in order to win. It’s a simple trick to get you hyped and engaged for the rest of the fight. When he clenches a hand of broken fingers into a fist and yells ‘COME AT ME WITH EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!!’, it’s hype as hell!
There are many reasons that fight is considered one of the best in the series. But we’ll get to that in the My Review Academia post.
RWBY’s Semblance powers don’t have those clear rules. We don’t know the limits of Ruby’s speed, or the power ceiling of Yang’s rage power up, or how many shadow-clones Blaike can make at a time. And because we don’t know these limits, it becomes incredibly hard to get invested and interested in a fight. The question of the battle isn’t ‘Can I beat this guy despite my power’s limits?’. That would be too interesting. No, the question is ‘Is my power stronger than his?’.
Because if Dragon Ball Super taught us anything, it’s that raw power is the only factor of a fight. Not physical limitations, cunning, tactics, teamwork, or anything that requires the use of your brain.
I could keep going for another hour or two, but I’ll stop here. I think I’ve eviscerated this series enough for the day. But make no mistake: I’ll be back to tackle it’s other issues.
Just remember: I do this because I love it. I know that I’ll occasionally just throw in an insult, such as when I said the writers haven’t thought this through, but I don’t do so out of a genuine mean spirited hatred. I enjoy picking on people, but I enjoy giving honest and constructive criticism far more.
Not that that means I can’t do both.