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Mediterranea Inferno review - a bruising, intensely stylish post-COVID nightmare

Mirage à trois.

An illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing three naked young men, viewed from the waist up, bathed in a sinister green light as neon pink scissors dance around them. Mida stares out in the middle, golden threads stretching from the fingers of his crossed arms, while Claudio and Andrea stand either side behind him, both wearing blindfolds.
Image credit: Lorenzo Redaelli/Eyeguys/Santa Ragione/Eurogamer
Lorenzo Redaelli follows up 2020's uncompromising The Milky Way Prince: The Vampire Star with a pulverising, shape-shifting visual novel of friendship, post-COVID trauma, and horror in the blistering Italian sun that's as artistically dazzling as it is emotionally raw.

So how was your lockdown? Three years on, as the 'new normal' rapidly recedes, life under COVID restrictions feels almost like a fever dream, any thought to the lingering trauma of enforced isolation ignored, dismissed, or forgotten. Mediterranea Inferno, though, remembers. This second outing from The Milky Way Prince's Lorenzo Redaelli – a creator working in the shadow of Italy's stringent, long-lasting coronavirus measures – has a lot on its mind, beginning with the impact those wilderness years have had on the collective conscious, particularly on young adults grappling with a sense of lost time at a critical juncture in their lives.

More than that, it presents – albeit in an exaggerated, darkly humorous fashion – a vision of paralysing generational malaise in the face of an uncertain present, a diminishing future, and eroding protections for vulnerable minorities. It's anxiety piled upon trauma, distilled into Mediterranea Inferno's three leads: a trio of beautiful, fashionable, popular Milan club kids in their early 20s – collectively known as 'I ragazzi del sole', the Sun Guys – who between them represent something of a holy triumvirate of identity, sociality, and power.

Mediterranea Inferno isn't technically horror, but it certainly goes there.Watch on YouTube

With our trio introduced, time smash-cuts to August 2022 when, after two years apart due to Italy's lingering COVID restrictions, the previously inseparable friends reunite in the blazing heat of a southern Italian summer. Each, though, has been changed by the trauma of the intervening years; Claudio, the once charismatic, confident leader of the group, is struggling to find his identity in a cultural and generational void; Andrea, previously the life of the party, feels hollowed in the absence of any real human connection, and only Mida, once aloof and uncertain, seems to have moved forward, having landed an influential, jet-setting modelling gig during lockdown. And while the boys soon settle into their old rhythms, there's a simmering undercurrent of tension, dysfunction, and perhaps even resentment, as long-held and newfound insecurities fester, and their three-day vacation in Puglia threatens to implode.

Mediterranea Inferno is, foundationally, a visual novel, but Redaelli's idiosyncratic vision, masterful control of the form, and dazzling artistic sensibilities create an experience that feels unbounded. Much of its story is conveyed through text, yes, but here the written word is in a perpetual dance with Redaelli's seductive score, sparing soundscapes, and breathlessly inventive visuals – shifting, surprising fusions of 2D artwork and stylised 3D, channelling the likes of fashion photography, classic Italian cinema, and Catholic imagery – which form a precise presentational language so ferociously intense, the cumulative effect is all-consuming.

A bleached, dream-like illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a blond young man, Andrea, standing facing the camera at the entrance to a beautiful beach; he wears a sailor's collar and a chastity belt in the shape on a heart. A games arcade is visible to his left, a manned information kiosk lies to his right, and the sky, ocean, and a scattering of red and white parasols are visible behind him.
A highly stylised illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing 13 swimmers silhouetted in a square of light with a bright blue sky behind them, as if viewed from the bottom of an unusually deep swimming pool.
A highly stylised illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing two young men, Claudio and Mida, sat naked on a bench beneath arches of twinkling lights. Their legs are intertwined and their bodies face each other but their heads are turned toward the screen. They are bathed in the reds and purples of a setting sun and masses of golden threads stretch from their touching fingertips into the heavens. A dialogue box to the right gives the player the option of saying either, "I just want to have fun with you girls..." or, "I can't handle the loneliness anymore."
An intentionally suggestive illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing fingertips sinking into the moist red flesh of a green fig, white juice seeping out over the probing hand.
One thing you don't get a sense of in screenshots is Mediterranea Inferno's striking compositional depth. 2D artwork, 3D models, and visual effects combine with a subtly adjustable perspective to make the stylised world feel more tangible. | Image credit: Lorenzo Redaelli/Eyeguys/Santa Ragione/Eurogamer

Here, the Italian summer is, initially at least, rendered like hell itself, an engulfing, stifling swell of vicious red that blasts and bleeds through every frame; wild prickly pears throb suggestively, menacingly, as if something is ready to burst from within, while drab evenings in the boys' villa are painted like a comedown after each vivid day. Amid all this comes a stranger bearing the Fruit of Mirages, each bite promising a temporary escape from the pain of the last few years – perhaps even a truly "endless summer" of pleasures for those ready to fully indulge. "I know you're looking for Mirages," the enigmatic Madama tells the boys. "I sell desires, hopes. I have the key to solve all your problems. I can cure your pain. I can give you what the world cannot".

For the low, low price of 350 "summer coins", earned at fixed points throughout each day, one boy – as selected by the player – can experience his own Mirage, whereupon Mediterranea Inferno's already heightened reality begins to untether completely, the postcard-perfect Italian summer twisting in a reflection of each lead's fragile psyche. During these hallucinatory sequences, Mediterranea Inferno loosens its narrative grip a little, providing an opportunity to more freely explore its striking environments and probe the boys' fantasies further.

An illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing two young men conversing outside their summer villa in the hot Italian sun. Mida sits in the shade of a pergola to the right, while Andrea stands, arms outstretched, in the centre. He is saying, "I'm embracing the hair regrowth on my shoulders and back as a political act."
An illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a handsome young man, named as Gianni, bathed in the warm summer sun as he looks at the camera. A caption reads, "Singing, dancing, killing, dying... it's all still better than being bored."
An illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a character, referred to as "Intriguing Smoker", sat in an elegant smock and headscarf, and bathed in the pink glow of the setting evening sun. They are saying, "We're just surrounded by ghosts from the past."
A highly stylised black and white illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a character wearing sunglasses and a strange woollen head covering leaving only their mouth visible. A caption reads, "A whole new self. What a person you've created, Mida."
Mediterranea Inferno's dialogue runs from the intimate to the theatrical to the disarmingly poetic, but its tonal swings are precisely controlled in service of its steadily fraying atmosphere and heightening mood. | Image credit: Lorenzo Redaelli/Eyeguys/Santa Ragione/Eurogamer

Andrea's first solo Mirage is one of hilariously unbridled horniness, a soft-core wet dream of beaches, beautiful men, and barely restrained innuendo as lollipops are licked, balloons are furiously pumped to the point of explosion, and fruit is consumed in startlingly suggestive ways (the boys' matter-of-fact queerness is refreshingly unabashed throughout Mediterranea Inferno, if usually a little more restrained). It's a sequence as gorgeous and frivolous and unbound as Andrea, a swirl of sun and skin and sweat, but there are glimmers of darkness too – here a disarming moment of unbridled terror in the face of loneliness – and it quickly becomes clear these visions of paradise are self-deceptions, a stubborn attempt by each boy to bury their deepest anxieties and lingering trauma, rather than confront them head-on. Claudio's Mirages are all baroque pomposity, conjuring intoxicating worlds and nostalgic lies of glories past, far from the present he refuses to face; Mida, for all his popularity, is wilful isolation epitomised – his first Mirage all cold, clinical abstraction and distance, playing out entirely at the bottom of an impossibly vast swimming pool, the real world just a square of light fathoms above.

It's easy to be dazzled by Mediterranea Inferno's stylistic bravado, especially during these Mirage sequences – from kaleidoscopic dance floor montages to noirish flashbacks, it's ceaselessly arresting stuff, as the 309 screenshots I took while playing can attest – but its real trick is how acutely it captures its moments of real, raw emotion. These boys might start life as a cartoonish portrayal of privilege – it's not an accident we're first introduced to them through the awed whispers of club goers, offering second-hand fictions with all the authenticity of an Instagram story – but their slowly unfurling pain and trauma feels profoundly, relatably real. These are rich, complex (if not exactly likeable) characters; disconnected from the world around them after several difficult years and caught in an unending cycle of deception – from themselves, their admirers, and their friends. Their inertia will ultimately be their undoing, and the increasingly ruthless Mediterranea Inferno spares no punishment for their self-pitying inaction (Madama mockingly refers to them as "martyrs" throughout), but their emotional turmoil is played earnestly, and handled with tenderness, empathy, and care.

A stark illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a blond young man, Andrea, sat at a table beneath a pergola, almost a silhouette against the bright summer sun.
A highly stylised illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a young man, Claudio, washing his hair in the shower. The image is bathed in an unnatural red light, and cactus branches can be seen creeping over the top of the cubicle.
An illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a blond young man, Andrea, sleeping peacefully on his bed, head hanging back while drool runs from his mouth. His trousered leg juts up on the mattress, barely visible behind a translucent aquamarine curtain obscuring the right-hand side of the screen.
A stylish chapter title screen from Mediterranea Inferno. Several handwritten sentences in Italian run vertically up the screen to the left and a black rectangle in the centre contains abstract 3D images of Milan at night.  Above the rectangle is the word "Ouverture" and below reads "Milano, 2020".
It's a small thing, but I really love how, just like the text, Mediterranea Inferno's often gently animated visual shots don't progress until you hit a button - meaning you can engage with its rich imagery as much as you would the written word. | Image credit: Lorenzo Redaelli/Eyeguys/Santa Ragione/Eurogamer

Your role in all this is, admittedly, somewhat limited – conversations progress in linear fashion, and even though individual Mirages loosen control a little, they always reach the same conclusion – but the choices you do have feel genuinely impactful; once every morning and again each afternoon, in what increasingly feels like a simultaneous act of benevolence and extreme cruelty, players get to decide which of the boys can indulge in their perfect holiday escape and, thus, stand a chance of reaching their promised Heaven – it's no coincidence their trip culminates on Ferragosto and the feast of Assumption. But with only a limited number of Mirages possible each playthrough, and four Mirages being required for the final day's ascension, at least one boy isn't getting the endless summer of their dreams. "Starting tomorrow", Madama tells each unsuccessful candidate as their self-delusion comes crashing down, "you'll go back to your everyday life, everyday thoughts, everyday pain."

There's a malleability to Mediterranea Inferno that's not immediately obvious with a single, couple-of-hours playthrough; as Mirages are tallied on each boy's scoresheet, and their chances of an endless summer draw closer or slip further away, their demeanour changes, causing dialogue, cutaways, even entire scenes to shift – both subtly and dramatically – in a reflection of their current state of mind. An Andrea happy in his self-delusion is seen snoozing blissfully in one cycle of his summer, while an Andrea denied a temporary escape from his overbearing loneliness can also be seen at the same point in the story furiously, blindly swiping "yes" on his Grindr-style hook-up app, desperately seeking some – any – kind of connection.

A highly stylised illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing an Italian street market at night. It is bathed in blues, yellows, and greens while revellers talk and dance in silhouette beneath strings of fairylights. A blond young man, Andrea, is fully illuminated and can be clearly seen standing between them.
An unsettling illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing three naked young men illuminated in neon pink light against a black background, flowers obscuring their genitals. Claudio stands in the centre, arms outstretched within the shape of a cross, while Andrea and Mida dangle either side of him, suspended by golden wires that wrap around their bodies.
An illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing an Italian graveyard presented in subdued shades of brown. Statues line a path leading to a family mausoleum with the name "Visconti" above the door.
An illustration from Mediterranea Inferno showing a blond young man, Andrea, addressing someone out of the frame. He is telling them, "Italian Covid restrictions have been so Catholic..."
Mediterranea Inferno often feels like it's in direct conversation with Italy's current cultural, social, and political climate, but its bold, challenging themes are unquestionably universal too. | Image credit: Lorenzo Redaelli/Eyeguys/Santa Ragione/Eurogamer

Inevitably, as with any morality tale, a reckoning must be had, and when it finally comes time for one unlucky boy's delusion to collapse, Mediterranea Inferno's insidiously mounting horror takes a swerve into truly nightmarish excess – only for the "endless summer loop" to reset, so players can make different choices, explore different Mirages, reach different endings, and, if they've managed to track down eight elusive Santini cards during successive loops, taste one final "special" fruit for the ultimate truth within.

As deeply bleak as all this might sound, one of Mediterranea Inferno's most impressive feats is its deft handling of tone; while there are certainly moments of painful, sometimes disturbing, emotional frankness here – touching on depression, loneliness, trauma, and more – there are plentiful moments of light and levity too, albeit shot through a pitch-black lens. Madama's on-the-nose moralising is, for instance, delivered with the wryest of winks – an optional coda lays the story's allegorical nature bare, before hilariously undercutting its pomposity and hypocrisy to offer something like a hopeful ending for our boys – and it's probably going to be a while before I can shake Andrea's extravagant Catholic guilt porno from my mind. But beyond all this, there's the simple fact Mediterranea Inferno just spins a damned good yarn – a morality play built like a mystery, powered masterfully along through a propulsive peeling back of its layers.

There are big, ambitious themes at play in Mediterranea Inferno – the importance of community and compassion; the precariousness of safe spaces; an existential howl into the void for a generation stranded between a selfish past, a broken present, and a fading future; a call for action against emotional, cultural, and political inertia – and it can occasionally feel (appropriately enough) like it's losing its way amid its overwhelming concerns. Its emotional authenticity never wavers, though, and the result is a dense, provocative, playful, exasperating, horrifying, poetic, often very funny, and occasionally even profound rumination on the sometimes paralysing search for a place in the disenfranchising shadow of modern-day life.

Mediterranea Inferno might, like our boys, envelop itself in dazzling, distracting artifice, but like our boys, too, there's real, raw feeling in its bruised and bruising heart.

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