RATING: 7 Keys RESULT: Win REMAINING: 11:36
Imagine if Disney built an official escape game. We’ve all wondered what that could be like. And then we went to Baton Rouge and realized it could probably never be this good.
While on a Caribbean vacation you decide to explore the island of Isla Mujeres, rumored to be the location where the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte hid his most priceless treasure.
Stopping to talk to a local tour guide, he gives you directions to a large series of Mayan Ruins and caves overlooking the ocean. He tells you that according to island legend, the pirate had a secret hideout somewhere within the caves, though no one had ever been able to discover it. The caves themselves were known as Cutthroat Caverns because the ancient Mayans would frequently perform human sacrifices within them.
Before you depart, your tour guide also cautions you about exploring too late, for many of the caves flood when the tide comes in at dusk and a person could easily get trapped and drown.
You find the ruins easily enough and after many hours of fruitless searching you are about to give up when you see a small hole at the base of an ancient Mayan statue. You cautiously reach inside and feel a small handle which, without thinking, you pull…
The ground opens up beneath your feet and you tumble down an ancient slide into a dark underground passage many stories below. As you stumble back to your feet you remember the tour guide’s warnings and wonder how you will ever escape in time.
13th Gate Escape starts off strong with a unique and incredibly detailed story to set up our adventure deep inside Cutthroat Cavern. On paper, and at first glance, this is quote “another pirate game” – a trope we’ve certainly seen our fair share of. In execution, however, this world runs deeper than the massive caverns that form its setting.
Cutthroat Cavern is home to the most immersive adventure-based attraction we’ve seen – easily surpassing all other escape games, and quite frankly giving some multi-million dollar Disney dark rides a run for their money. This is far from your average pirate tale; to the contrary, Cutthroat Cavern is an incredible mix of flavors clearly inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean, The Goonies and Indiana Jones, all woven together for what results as one hell of an original epic tale.
Every single second within its world is real. And let me be clear – it doesn’t “feel real.” It is unquestionably real. From the moment you stumble into the Mayan ruins that form its gateway to the outside world, Cutthroat Caverns envelops you into its world so solidly, so successfully that you might just never find a game that can surpass it.
The biggest paradox of all is the mixed emotions that are evoked. The sense of awe and wonder that instantly surround us – only to get stronger and stronger throughout – is in direct conflict with the much less welcoming sense of the foreboding. And why foreboding, you may ask? Come on – do you know nothing about pirates? Because obviously no self-respecting buccaneer is going to hide their precious treasure without a significant degree of booby traps left behind to protect it! And just like the cavern itself, and the curse that haunts it – yep, those booby traps are real too.
Cutthroat Cavern follows a formula that I myself am quite fond of as a designer – start small and wow your audience with unexpected reveals that keep getting bigger and bigger. The Mayan ruins we find ourselves trapped in at the start of the adventure are a small, cramped space – but no less gorgeously loyal to 13th Gate Escape’s impeccable attention to detail. Escaping this trap led to one of the most compelling secret passageway reveals we have ever seen.
Up to that point.
Entering the second chamber of this cursed temple found us in a massive rotunda with high vaulted ceilings. It’s crumbling stone clearly had seen better days, only to be distressed even further by vines and roots breaking their way through from the jungles that surround it. It’s the first time I ever stopped dead in my tracks upon seeing a new room’s reveal and whispered to myself, “You have got to be kidding me.” Simply put, it was one of the most awe-inspiring escape room sets we have ever seen.
Up to that point.
It was here that a member of our team leaned in and joked, “Are you sure there’s nothing higher than 6 Keys?” I stood firm. No. 6 Keys is the highest honor – and there’s just no question that’s what Cutthroat Cavern will be receiving.
You guys, we were roughly five minutes into the game when this conversation occurred. Process that for a second.
Yet another room opened for us – this one watched over by a very menacing-looking serpent king. Anywhere else, in any other game, we’d be raving about how it was one of the coolest things we’d ever seen, but we were now in a world where there was just nothing left 13th Gate Escape could do to surprise us.
Up to that point.
As our team placed the final of three skulls onto a sacrificial altar, like a moment straight out of an epic Indiana Jones movie, the podium itself lowered, and the single most insane, single most jaw-dropping hidden reveal unfolded before our very eyes in such grand fashion, in such massive scale that I at this point shouted out loud “You have got to be f*#king kidding me.”
I immediately found myself struggling between two competing instincts: sit on the ground and just try to process what in the holy hell just happened – for real, right in front of me – OR – run out into the new territory and explore the single coolest space we may ever find in any escape room on earth. Suddenly my firm stance on a 6 Key maximum was much less firm.
A sprawling underground sandy beach sat before us, hidden deep within a cave, with a full scale pirate shipwreck on the shores of a lake. Did I just say lake? BECAUSE THERE’S A LAKE. And you know, for good measure, a giant waterfall too. The beach itself is literally larger than most entire escape games – and that’s not counting the water areas that you probably shouldn’t be stepping foot in. And the cave? Hand-carved custom rockwork completely surrounds you on all sides – and ceiling – reaching as high as 20-25′ above you!
And that shipwreck? Yeah, obviously we’re getting in there as well for yet another new room to explore. Because if it’s one thing we’ve learned in Cutthroat Cavern, it’s that 13th Gate Escape isn’t willing to even think about cutting a single corner.
At this point, I highly doubt you’ll be even the slightest bit surprised to hear that every single puzzle step is intricately linked to the storyworld. Everything, and I mean everything is laid out in such a way that it not only compliments but furthers the narrative.
Early on, several tasks find us defusing centuries-old booby traps. In the rotunda, one of the most compelling and perhaps the most inspired physical puzzles activates the entire space, energizing both the story and our own personal excitement levels. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anything like this action and its subsequent execution (and physical impact on the space) anywhere.
And then there’s the beach. Because, you know, it’s not already jaw-dropping enough on it’s own. Naturally they’d incorporate a puzzle integrated within an absolutely massive Rube Goldberg machine that quite literally surrounds the entire space and functions as a means of bringing this incredible underground world to life.
And if you think that’s all you’re going to find in Cutthroat Cavern, you might as well walk the plank right now. No self-respecting pirate adventure could ever be complete without following the paces marked on an old map, steering the ship, and yes, quite literally digging up buried treasure. It’s all here, and it’s all amazingly incorporated in such an organic way that it’s clearly real.
Every single second of the action within Cutthroat Cavern stays true to its storyworld, including its hint system. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the one thing we didn’t particularly care for from our review of another of the venue’s simply stunning games, Tomb of Anubis. Beginning with Cutthroat Cavern, gone is the cumbersome and thematically jarring iPad-based QR code hint system. In it’s place, a full-fledged audio animatronic parrot sits atop the shipwreck, eager to offer his advice (and sometimes a little good-natured taunting.) It’s so obviously what an interaction within a pirate world needs to be.
Naturally, each action you take builds toward an equally epic storyworld climax that features one of two possible endings – taking very different tones depending on how well you play the game up to that point. True to form from the rest of the experience, it’s easily among the very best finale show moments we’ve ever seen, in any game, anywhere. (We’re almost sad that we won – because from the sound of things, the “lose state” version might actually be even cooler!)
After our victory, our game master came in to congratulate us, and what would follow is the very first time in all the years I’ve been a fan of this industry that I would have this reaction. My first words to her were – and this is completely true – “Soooo, we technically have like twelve minutes left. Can we just… stay in here a little bit longer?” And we actually did.
As a designer, Cutthroat Cavern evoked a range of emotions from me the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. All at once, I was inspired, angry, happy, jealous, motivated, self-conscious and completely blown away.
For more than two years, I’ve been asked repeatedly when a game will get a 7 Key score. My answer was always firmly the same. Never. There simply was no need to ever go higher than 6 Keys, because 6 Keys already was the very definition of a game that broke our rating scale.
And then we discovered Cutthroat Cavern.
Here’s the thing – it’s no secret that every game we review is rated relative to every other game we’ve seen before it. Do you still find yourself wondering – even after reading all of this – why Cutthroat Cavern broke that rule? Because simply put, if we gave Cutthroat Cavern a 6 Key score, everything would change. Every single 6 Key game would be knocked down to a 5 Key score – and in some cases may actually find themselves at 4 Keys. And everything else would avalanche from there.
There’s nothing like Cutthroat Cavern. Nothing. The only way to truly define its scope is to draw this comparison: Imagine if you were at Disneyland, enjoying a ride on the Indiana Jones Adventure – an attraction which to this day I still maintain is the single greatest ride on earth. Imagine your troop transport vehicle were to break down smack dab in the middle of the Cavern of Bubbling Death scene (Google it; it’s a thing.) Now, rather than simply being walked back to unload, that entire cavernous space turns into the world’s greatest escape game.
Because that’s Cutthroat Cavern.
The level of detail meets – and in some cases surpasses – that found on Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure – an attraction whose budget today would be well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The space is unimaginably massive – somewhere north of 3,300 square feet. My entire two story house isn’t that big. And let me paint an even more profound picture for you: most average games sit somewhere between 300-400 square feet. Big games are 750-800 square feet. The biggest game we’d previously seen was 1500 square feet, and frankly, it made little to no use of its immense size.
And then there’s Cutthroat Cavern – triple the size, and what feels like every square inch used to great success to further the flow of the game – yo-yoing its players back and forth from chamber to chamber as new secrets reveal themselves. The closest comparison that could be made is this: if you grew up in the 1980’s, you unquestionably wished at some point that you could join The Goonies on their epic underground adventure. Well, I daresay that if The Goonies were around today, they’d wish they could join you on your adventure through Cutthroat Cavern.
13th Gate Escape not only came to us highly recommended, but actually was internally our #1 bucket list venue in the entire country. As such, there’s a certain level of nervousness that surrounds the fear of “what if it doesn’t live up to the hype?” 13th Gate Escape isn’t hype. 13th Gate Escape isn’t even real. 13th Gate Escape is absolutely unreal.
And as great as each one of their initial five games are, none hold a candle to Cutthroat Cavern. But that’s just it – this cannot even be a conversation of 13th Gate Escape games competing against each other; Cutthroat Cavern is so damn good that simply put, no game can hold a candle to it – a fact that will be hard-pressed to challenge any time soon.
This is the game that changes everything. This is the game that breaks all preconceived notions of what a game even can be. This is Cutthroat Cavern, and by Davy Jones, it’s a pirate’s life for me.
Venue: 13th Gate Escape
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Number of Games: 5
GAME SPECIFIC INFORMATION:
Duration: 60 minutes
Capacity: 8 people
Group Type: Public / You may be paired with strangers.
Cost: $28 per person (A minimum of four players are required for this game.)
Escape Authority readers save 20% using code EA13EA
We thank 13th Gate Escape for inviting us to play this game. Although complimentary admission was generously provided, that in no way impacts the opinion included within this review.