If you go by the assumption that any episode without Yui is a good episode, SAO #13 was definitely a big improvement.
I think I've more or less figured out the problems I’m having with Sword Art Online, and they’re not surprisingly similar to the ones I had with Accel World. It’s a gross oversimplification but I think this is a series written by a very young person, and it’s probably most appealing to very young people – younger than I am, anyway. Simplicity is a big part of the issue, I think – I might just be too cynical to buy into the emotions in the story. There’s too much crying, too many long, long shots of beautiful young people smiling beatifically straight into the camera. And while it might be romantic to believe that Kirito and Asuna could barely know each other yet still be so utterly soul-mates that the cosmic convergence of their twinned souls can change the very fabric of this world – I can’t quite buy it. I like my romance with a bit more pathos, and find love stories more rewarding if they've been earned with a little more hard work and pain. And while SAO doesn’t have nearly so many out-and-out groaner moments as AW, it also mostly lacks the irreverence of Accel World – this is the better show, but it’s almost painfully earnest sometimes.
That said, I remain solidly interested in the mechanics of the world, and the teasing little hints we get that the series is going to step back from the broad sentimentality and really focus on the deeper issues implied in the premise are enough to keep me hooked like the fish Kirito and new friend Nishida (Saito Shirou) were after in the first part of the episode. I enjoyed the fishing sequence quite a lot until Asuna derailed it with her weepy monologue – it was refreshingly low-key and had the feel of something more important than it seemed. We spend the last arc looking at one end of the spectrum, the lost children of Aincrad – now we get to see the other. We had a brief look at some ojii-sans fishing a few eps ago, but it’s through Nishida that we see another type of player – not a hard-core gamer, but someone enjoying the world for its simple pleasures. Nishida might have been a big-wheel ‘net security expert in RL, but inside SAO he’s ill-suited to do the heavy lifting of trying to clear the game. All he can do is survive, so he chooses to do so doing something he loves. Nishida is a nice contrast to all the youthful angst and GAR so prevalent in the series generally.
Things kick into another gear in the second act, as Heathcliff calls our young lovers back from Wuthering Heights and onto the front lines, where a party of twenty (from five separate guilds) has been wiped out in a battle with a floor boss. While the emotions are again played way too broadly, we again get a sort of interesting situation as Kirito tries to play the protective husband and keep Asuna from joining this party. What strikes me odd is the way she casually refers to “that time a few months into the game when most players went offline for a while”. Yes, it makes sense – they were being moved into a hospital – but unless I’m mistaken, I don’t think we saw any reference to than on-screen before – and it’s not the first time a seemingly critical events is only referred to in hindsight in an “Oh, by the way” fashion. I suspect this is an issue with the awkwardness of adapting SAO with it’s weird structure of side stories and such, which jump all over the timeline – but the effect, for me, feels like sloppy writing. In any case Kirito’s reaction to what Asuna says about their real-world bodies seems surprising to me, because what she says is so self-evident. Perhaps he’s been living in a state of complete denial about that, though it seems out of character.
In the battle that follows, we get some very nicely-animated action sequences as Klein and Egil join the party (a bit too reliant on CGI for my tastes, but still competently done). What seems clear is that this “Skull Reaper” possesses an order of magnitude of strength above what we've seen from any foe so far. A sort of giant skeletal scorpion, it quickly adds to it’s kill count of twenty, wiping out several members of Heathcliff’s force in seconds. Even when Kirito and Asuna join up to neutralize its scythes while Egil and Klein attach the body, the monster’s health gauge doesn’t seem to move much, if at all. Is Skull Reaper (Kirito seemed to have heard of it already) literally a game changer, or simply the strongest boss the Knights of the Blood Oath (and presumably anyone) has encountered? The name of the next ep is “The End of the World” and this week is the end of the cour, so perhaps we’re getting ready for our first change of venue in Sword Art Online’s first season.