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I'm actually beginning to wonder why I was so sceptical about this series, because this episode was very good.
I do wonder why so much hate seems to stem from fans of the Light Novel series. As I understand this episode took certain liberties with and/or didn't quite capture the emotion properly or adequately when compared to the light novel but for someone like me who doesn't read the LN, I didn't really see a problem with the episode. In that respect, being familiar with the Light Novel or any source material for that matter is both a blessing and a curse; a blessing seeing a series you enjoyed get animated and a curse seeing it fall short of your expectations.
Now I'm not saying the episode was without flaws, in fact its biggest flaw was that it did feel rushed and at times made me feel that some important minor details may have been glossed over and maybe a not so minor detail when we consider the build-up to Sachi's death. Sachi's was a character who was afraid to die from the beginning and one of the more inexperienced players in the world of Sword Art Online so her death can be described as predictable but that still doesn't mean it should take so little time to take care of. With this being the a disappointing moment in the episode, it was made more evident that the primary flaw I was experiencing was the out-of-whack pacing which ended up taking the story all the way to Level 49 before ending, something that may have happened in the Light Novel but I have a feeling it would have been covered in more detail and at a slower pace.
Putting aside pacing issues, this episode had a lot of emotions and continued to show us Kirito's struggle. Many often don't realise or even recognise the burdens which the strong carry but these burdens are just as heavy as everyone elses. In Kirito's case it is his strength which causes him most heartache because should he reveal his true level he will either be relied on and made responsible for the lives of his fellow guild members or he would be ostracised and accused of reaching that level by being a "beater" (from episode 2: cheater + beta = beater). His strength also happens to be the cause of his guilty conscience when his team gets slaughtered and the guild member decides to commit suicide, both events he wasn't responsible for but make him feel like he could have prevented them.
It's at the end of the episode when he searches for the rare item that I truly felt sorry for Kirito for possessing such a guilty conscience which is not made easier by him meeting up with the guy whom he abandoned at the very beginning of the game, Klein. The meeting made for another painful reminder for Kirito but it also helped to snap him out of his pseudo-suicidal tendencies which should have been resolved when he heard Sachi's Gift Box. This was definitely the highlight of the episode for me seeing as how it was filled to the brim with emotion and sadness, enough to get me to squeeze out a tear and made Sachi's death shameful in comparison. With no emotion lacking when Kirito listened to the Rudolph Song and Sachi's last words, the episode ended on a high note and left me feeling sadder than I was going into the episode.
With 3 episodes down, I'm happy with how Sword Art Online has progressed and I hope to see it improve as the anime goes on. With some pacing issues to be expected, I don't think that its anything that can't be overcome and hopefully not stop the series from ending as a good anime.