Is there a more God of War place than Svartalfheim? Certainly not from what I've seen so far. I've played just a few hours of God of War Ragnarök, much of the rest remaining chained up and locked down under embargoes (and I suspect you wouldn't want me spoiling them anyway). But I can talk quite freely about this place, and I'd love nothing more.
Svartalfheim is the realm of the Dwarves, a place of sweaty, smelly bogs and twinkling shallow waters and, most importantly, mines. We are on the hunt for Tyr, a rather important giant. He is probably locked in a mine here, I understand. But what's important about the mines isn't their value to their story but the value to this game. What do you think of when you imagine a Dwarven mining realm? I think of one thing in particular: contraptions.
Contraptions are everything in God of War, and seemingly more-everything-than-ever in Ragnarök. In the years since the reboot I'd forgotten their prominence, but within barely a couple of hours I've been yanking pulleys and dropping counterweights, spinning discs on upright poles like the Roadrunner bolting past a sign. I've been whipping chains, boomeranging axes, smashing rocks and trees and icicles. I've knocked down little statues, cranked great wheels, paddled under low bridges and hopped across chasms. All of them loop together, forming a game you don't explore so much as gradually ease apart, like a ball of knotted yarn. Go there and do this so you can do this and get that. This is the essence of God of War, and as well as forgetting how much of this stuff there was, I'd forgotten how much I love it.
What else? Well, everything you'd expect. Combat is feisty and loud and always teetering on the edge of silliness, attacks always homing in and enemies loitering for comically long pauses after you whip them up into the air. But silliness is fun. The same goes for Ragnarök's talkier moments, with some heavy and serious, some fizzing with little pops of character, Kratos the straight man to Brock and Sindri's double-act.
Atreus, meanwhile, is a teenager now, less boy and more lad. He is troublingly independent, as you'll soon find, and apparently full of surprises as he goes through an enjoyably Norse Mythology version of 'learning about his body'. Teenage angst is clearly a prominent theme - as it was in my conversation with Santa Monica animation director Bruno Velazquez - and it feels as though that can only head in one direction in Ragnarök's story. The whole thing is drenched in that special something's-about-to-go-down sauce.
Beyond that though, one thing I've yet to really find is novelty. Perhaps that's down to it being built to work on the PS4, and the limitations that implies - I've squeezed through lots of narrow cracks already, for such a short time - but then, the last one was hardly unpopular. One of the only major complaints from the wider public was about enemy variety, and that's been seen to in my experience so far, with several mini-boss fights already against entirely different foes (good riddance, trolls).
Combat, too, has yet to really evolve from the 2018 game. You start with your Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos and some basic attacks available, and so in part this will surely be down to the earliness of what I've played so far - I've yet to unlock more than a couple skills on the tree and surely there'll be a surprise at some point, if only to try and match the fun of first unlocking those Blades last time around. A small tweak is how you can hold triangle to freeze up your axe or whirl your chains in fire, dealing out some extra damage and status effects on the next attack - I suspect that'll develop into something more important over time - and you can now equip different shields with more offensive or defensive benefits, granting an extra level of thought to your parries that I'm liking so far and keen to play around with more. For now though, it's a simple kind of fun that's still waiting to really get up to its full thrash-metal tempo. I've no doubt it will.
Personally I'm hoping the whole crafting, levelling, and gear system gets some attention, as that seemed a little jarring in the past and largely the same from my time with Ragnarök so far. Although, you start to see the necessity of it as you come back to playing: at the end of all these little looping, branching, contraption-littered paths, you need something shiny to find. Sinking back into that easy-going, feet-up kind of light puzzling has so far made for a wonderfully soothing return, like easing Kratos' great battle-scarred shoulders into a nice hot Svartalfheim bath.