The game takes place in and around the fictional Hardscrabble Island. For centuries, Hardscrabble was a thriving seaport, but the local fishing industry died out in the 1920s. Most of the area's remaining population is an assortment of hard-luck types and people of questionable ethics.
The player's character is a skilled diver scraping to make ends meet. One night, an old shipmate named Hevlin barges in with a map indicating the locations of two previously undiscovered shipwrecks. Flashing between excitement and paranoia, Hevlin abruptly leaves, asking the player to safekeep the map. Naturally, the old sailor is murdered as he practically steps from the doorway; someone obviously wants this map quite badly.
As the player attempts to mount a perilous dive for sunken treasure, several characters offer their help. Some of them can be trusted and some can not. Failure to tell the difference between the two can result in an "untimely accident". Successfully making positive contact with the right characters is the only way the player can advance to the actual shipwrecks. Once the dive begins the player must locate and retrieve the treasure from that wreck to complete the game.
Each time the game is played, either the São Vera or the Leviathan is randomly chosen as the wreck to be explored. The other two locations contain no treasure and are red herrings.
Matthew Murray's short review of this underrated Infocom game:
"An adventure game with an objective much different than that of typical adventure games, Cutthroats was a treasure hunt of a unique sort, as the treasure was beneath the waves. While most of the game did take place on dry land, there was quite a bit of plot, and a lot of color in the locales that made the game, and the characters it involved very believable. Though the dive for the treasure was exciting, it was certainly not the focus of the game, and not the most memorable part. While not one of Infocom's best games, it is still entertaining to play, and as it offers two shipwrecks (the divings of which are the only difference, as the rest of the plot remains the same), the game is somewhat replayable. Good if you enjoy real-life treasure hunts that are more "close-to-home" and present day than Infidel (though it is not as hard), Cutthroats is worth playing." Not one of Infocom's best games, but still a much better release than most other commercial IF games of that era.
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