Sacrifice: Stratos Mission 6
For this mission, Stratos gives us... dubious stuff.
1100 Mana, 4 Souls
The Flurry is probably the worst artillery in the game, and I'm particularly baffled that it costs 4 souls instead of 3. It suffers in part from being a Stratos unit -since god stat modifiers are percentile, the fact that the Flurry is the fastest artillery is cold comfort because it's fast by artillery standards, yet still painfully slow in absolute terms, while lowering its already iffy HP. Additionally to that, though, it actually has the worst damage of artillery units -it has better damage per hit than a Flummox, but the Flummox has better damage per soul, which is really the metric that actually matters for artillery, and the other three artillery just plain do more damage.
In exchange, its unique effect is that its splash damage drags targets toward the center of the impact point. Most of the time, this is... mildly useful. If Flurry were highly accurate shots, it would actually help maximize damage with groups of Flurries, forcing groups of enemies to clump into the impact zone. As Flurries are actually horribly inaccurate, just like all artillery, most of the time it's just sort of... annoying to be on the receiving end of. The odd thing is, many Stratos units are actually more accurate than their counterparts on other gods, but the Flurry is not one of those units. (Indeed, artillery accuracy doesn't vary at all)
When particularly uneven terrain gets involved, ideally in the form of actual structures, the Flurry's impact behavior can actually be startlingly disruptive; if a Flurry shot impacts above ground units, the pull effect will actually drag them into the air, causing them to tumble and be unable to do anything. Notably, this can outright interrupt wizard spells, and with enough Flurries firing you can end up outright stunlocking a wizard, with them never quite managing to get back up before the next crystal has pulled them into the air.
But... this is nearly impossible to deliberately arrange, and quite frankly Vorticks are better at stunlocking wizards and meaningfully disrupting enemy formations. Worse, the pulling effect is indiscriminate -it's entirely possible to end up with your own wizard being disrupted, such as if you're running in to try to Convert souls, and I even saw in one of my many failed attempts at this mission a Sac Doctor vanish as a result of being dragged away from a corpse just as they were in the middle of the syringe-stabbing animation. My personal experience is that Flurries are, in fact, far more prone to screwing up your efforts than screwing up enemy efforts.
I really find the potential to be pulled up a giant mistake in the Flurry's design. The only time it's kind of reliable as a feature is when you're dealing with Guardians, and due to artillery having awful accuracy it's still not really reliable even then. It doesn't provide an actual niche for Flurries or anything, it's just this thing you can usually ignore but occasionally it can make or break an encounter -it was, for example, a notable contributor to the Pyro mission with Jadugarr being incredibly obnoxious, usually not mattering but occasionally interrupting my spellcasting and taking my movement out of my control.
I honestly feel like Flurries should have swapped with the Vortick's effect, if anything, and/or that Flurries should have been made more accurate and/or that the physics should've been handled so the pull-into-air effect was impossible. (For one thing, Vortick's straight-line projectiles would be much more prone to pulling enemies up into the air, such as by targeting air units) Or that Flurries should've been taken into a completely different direction, that would work too.
In any event, I consider Flurries never worth taking if you can avoid it. Their potential for disruption is overly-niche and can be effortlessly filled by the Vortick (While giving you a great shield spell), with every other artillery unit being less flawed. The Flurry doesn't even come paired with a particularly great spell...
Frozen Ground is... neat?
Its actual effect is that a section of terrain becomes frozen over, with units that are present at the time becoming frozen, exactly as per the Freeze spell, taking them out of action and doing very minor damage when they unfreeze. Additionally and non-obviously, when the ground itself unfreezes it does a modestly decent amount of damage to everything currently standing on it. That's... it.
It doesn't work on fliers, it's actually one of the more significantly and directly telegraphed spells in the game (It outright launches a slow-moving projectile that drifts directly toward the impact point, making it easy for an attentive player to avoid it), and while in the campaign the AI doesn't try to avoid it they also tend to let their forces get strung out behind them, instead of clumping enough to really benefit from it. And of course it won't freeze a wizard with their shield currently up.
It could certainly be worse, but it's a pretty bad spell, and having to take Flurries alongside it is just unbearable. Pass.
The mission itself is godawful. I still feel the immediately prior Stratos mission has a worse design, but this mission took 50 minutes of recording instead of 30, had over half a dozen failed attempts instead of no failed attempts, and has a number of decisions that basically work out to spiting the player even though I better understand how they came about than with the Manalith nonsense.
First of all, let's talk about the Boon: you only get it if you kill every Persephone unit and structure on the map. I didn't get it even though I scoured the map and Shakti didn't summon anything before she died. I half-suspect that the civilian structures are counted, too, honestly, but even if it's that some Persephone units were hiding in some corner somewhere... where and why?
It's a dumb Boon, is my point, which is particularly infuriating because something I haven't mentioned before is that Boon rewards vary in their effectiveness and this Stratos Boon is his single strongest one, and arguably the single strongest Boon in the entire game. (One of the options is +25% to your mana supply; other gods can offer mana boosts, and no other Boon case will match or exceed this value) So it's not 'oh well whatever' if you fail to get it because one of Shakti's units is randomly hiding behind a hill or whatever happened here -and again, this mission took me 50 minutes on my successful attempt. Failing to get the Boon after all that time isn't 'oh, I guess I'll redo this fifteen-minute long mission, whatever'. It's infuriating.
The thing is, I actually want to like this mission. The idea of forcing the player to mess around with Shrines and a challenge mission in which having your wizard die even once is a pretty decent challenge mission idea in Sacrifice. It's also all logical within the setting.
But the actual handling is godawful on so many levels, above and beyond the Boon.
First of all, there's the point that losing Sara Bella will fail the mission as well. This is plot-logical and I wouldn't care about it being a mission objective except the game will, under circumstances I've never been able to find consistent rules to, cheatspawn in attack waves that are obsessively focused on killing Sara Bella, spawning basically right on top of her. Narratively, this makes no sense; Shakti has no reason to think Sara Bella's death will reconnect her to Persephone or anything of the sort, and there's not even any evidence that she knows Sara Bella is here! Game design-wise, this also makes no sense; it's already the case that I can lose the mission at any time by getting my wizard killed, the game doesn't need to also arbitrarily threaten Sara Bella! And it's inconsistent; back when I was slave-raiding for Pyro, the game didn't feel any need to spawn Troggs to kill Faestus, and in that mission it would've actually made sense for the game to threaten Faestus in an attempt to move away from Sacrifice's issues with victory usually being had several minutes before the game actually credits you the win because once you'll peeled enough souls away from the AI everything else is a formality. I'd have understood if this was just a general pattern in the game that happens to be particularly obnoxious in this case, but this is the only mission that does this!
Second of all, there's that cheatspawn dragon. You don't have to trigger it -it spawns in response to getting your wizard close to the Manafount, and even if you're shooting for the Boon that's unnecessary- but there's no warning that maybe you shouldn't cross the trigger line, and if the dragon fixates on your wizard it can easily kill you in two hits, with your wizard flinching in response to the first hit all but ensuring it will make the lethal hit. In literally any other mission, this dragon would be annoying, but only likely to be a serious problem if you triggered it with poor timing. In this mission, it can take an attempt that's ten minutes in and handling things well and whoops that's it you're done, try again.
Then there's three Gnomes Guardianed to Shakti's first Manalith on the way to her Altar. In one of my attempts, I crested the hill approaching them and instantly died. This is with an HP-boosting Boon, keep in mind. Again, in any other mission that would be annoying, but in this mission that's potentially an instant game over with zero warning. This is why I was using attack-move orders to send my units at that particular Manalith, instead of my usual thing of having them trail behind me and attack at their own discretion.
Then there's Toldor spawning in. Toldor is, of course, a hero, albeit one we've not seen before. Like most heroes he's seriously resistant to damage (Except for direct spell damage, which he takes normal damage from... which is still half what his base unit would take), and his base unit has very high HP so he's a colossal pain to kill. And, again, he cheatspawns in with several other units when you cross an invisible line. And he hits hard, you don't want him getting into melee with you.
And, bafflingly, where so many other missions have had woefully-inadequate protection for the AI's Altar, in this mission Shakti has two Manaliths with Guardianed artillery that literally have the high ground. This is one of the only missions in the game where I'd have understood giving the AI inadequate protection for their Altar, since the mission is already difficult and dangerous just on the level of 'if your wizard dies you instantly lose'.
Part of what's going on is a combination of poor timing and matchup issues. Persephone is the only god to have a long-ranged hitscan unit -the Gnomes- and so if this mission pitted you against literally any other god's forces that's one flaw with the mission that would go away. If this mission were one mission earlier, Shakti wouldn't have her artillery, and so me hitting critical mass in force size wouldn't be counteracted by splash damage killing my force en mass. If this mission were one mission later, I'd be getting Stratos' heavier melee unit, and so have a much, much better answer to massed artillery. If this weren't a Stratos mission, I wouldn't be forced to make due with the absolutely horrid Flurry, and so critical mass of artillery would actually be able to overwhelm Shakti's own artillery, instead of being mass-killed by them. And, to be fair, if I weren't imposing the mono-Stratos condition on myself, I'd potentially have other units much better suited to dealing with the situation -that's one component of the difficulties I'm having that's not strictly the game design's fault.
But still, this mission is riddled with bizarre and problematic decisions that serve to make it an infuriating mission where you're liable to suffer multiple deaths through no fault of your own.
As a more minor complaint, your dialogue option when Shakti shows up literally doesn't matter. If you threaten her, she takes it as an unfunny joke and Eldred plays along and apologizes. If you ask her what the issue is, she explains that her connection to Persephone is cut and Eldred pretends to comfort her. You might think the game is giving you the option of running this as a stealth mission vs running it as a combat mission or something -Shakti has units outright patrolling in a manner that suggests some kind of stealth mission design- but... no. No, Shakti never goes hostile prior to you attacking green units. You're free to wander around, though aside the two unclaimed Manafounts being potentially worth claiming before you get started, there's not a lot of point. Notably, Shakti's Altar is placed far enough away from even the unclaimed Manafounts that Manahoars will be completely unable to provide you mana if you're up by her Altar, which in conjunction with the innate blob of defenders and the AI pretty clearly cheating on mana generation makes it really impractical to wander up there and win by Desecrating it. I imagine someone has done it just to prove it was possible, but for more normal play... not really an option.
This mission is seriously a mess.
Narratively, we're seeing that Stratos is such a dedicated backstabber he outright developed a technique for cutting godly connections to followers so he can backstab in secret in a world where it's normally impossible to do anything to any of your enemies without their boss being instantly alerted.
You might expect this to be narratively significant, but it... kinda isn't. Nothing is ever done with this again, and other routes don't even subtly imply that this technique got used in them as well. In the Pyro route, Abraxus running off to kill Persephone seems to have been based entirely on her already being one step away from Persephone's home territory -it took place right here in Arborea, after all. (Why didn't Toldor show up in that mission, anyway? He's here because he's an Ent and this is the home of the Ents, and that should be just as true in Pyro's version of events) And as we've already seen, it doesn't get built on as the secret technique to kill Marduk for good, or anything. It's a weirdly one-off plotpoint.
Also, Shakti died for realsy reals. I'll be coming back to this topic down the line.
On a different note, pay attention to Stratos' graphic in the briefing dialogue. Usually Stratos' balloon-head has a zig-zag mouth that could be taken as a smile, but ambiguously so. Here, he's got a more traditional curved line of a smile, and he's bouncing around excitedly and transitions into outright clapping. Stratos is thrilled to be initiating Plan: Betray Persephone. Interestingly, this is the only time in the entire game he ever uses this particular animation, as far as I'm aware, no matter what route you go down.
Also, this mission is what I was talking about when I alluded to Stratos Mission 1's 'no gods here' aspect sort of coming back later. I hesitate to call the first mission foreshadowing, but my suspicion is that Sara Bella's technique is supposed to be based on her studying the forbidden island in Stratos' first mission.
See you next Stratos mission.