If we are to follow the normal ‘recipe’ for an anime series, around the eighth episode mark is normally when things really start to get going, and SAO dutifully treads the same path.
That’s not to say the journey along the way isn’t immensely fun, as a matter of fact some of the more standalone episodes are the most emotionally peaky. The time spent between those earlier episodes and the first-arc finale has been well spent, you don’t get the feeling that its all just packing peanuts padding out the box, leaving you to madly swipe them aside to get to the good stuff at the bottom.
Kirito finally gets some serious character development as he wrestles with continuing to fight on the front line to complete the game or further pursue he’s romantic entanglement with Asuna. The latter option is one of the series high points and something that you get the feeling will play an integral role later on in the story (SAO light novel readers can smugly nod in agreement). The sudden development of their relationship feels a little jarring at first; it develops so quickly we are left with a spinning head and whiplash. Given some time to adjust to the new emotional frequency though, and you wonder how they ever lived without each other…aww.
The last three or so episodes leading up to the finale are predictably wrought with peril and there are some moments which are on such an emotional edge they nearly spill over into being sappy, not quite though, that would have been a huge shame.
The finale itself? It’s intense and well put together if not entirely original and again seems to come out of nowhere. Importantly though, it leaves you wanting more and the sight of a withered, emaciated Kirito slowly staggering down the hall to the ending credits is a really haunting sight to say the least.
The real way to measure the merit of SAO is to stand at this point in the series and look back, all this has happened and we are only just over half way through? If the journey has been this mental up until now, just where is it going to go next? That’s really the most exciting question and also the most troubling, will they be able to maintain this level of plot development? Or will the series inevitably sag towards the end as the concept begins to run out of steam and we are forced to eat packing peanuts for the last few episodes…
Let's see how things go, as of now SAO is on a high, it's still engaging and I imagine has quite a few tricks left up its sleeve. Still very much worth watching.