Reviews

Balatro review — Hitting the roguelike jackpot

Who says the rules aren’t meant to be broken? In Balatro, you’ll be putting together a deck of cards to build a monstrous poker hand to rack up a high score to defeat each blind, with the help of some whimsical Jokers along the way. Sure you might be familiar with traditional poker, but no one is going to mind if you bend the rules a bit in this deck-building roguelike. Just remember, if anyone asks, tell ‘em Jimbo sent you.

Every run begins by selecting your deck, each of which come with their own unique benefit or twist. These can range from small changes, like adding an additional discard or supplying a sum of money at the start of your run, to larger changes like removing all face cards. Each deck feels like it brings something interesting to the table, without pigeonholing you too aggressively into a particular playstyle right from the start.

The actual gameplay takes place in eight levels, or Antes as the game proclaims. If you’re familiar with poker, you’re already more than half way there to understanding Balatro, as you’ll be playing poker hands to build up enough score to clear a level. Each Ante will have three Blinds to defeat before moving to the next, those being the Small Blind, Big Blind, and some variant of a Boss Blind. Each Boss Blind has a special modifier that you’ll need to play around, and while some are easier than others, there are absolutely boss blinds you need to be prepared for. Bosses like The Needle force you to only play a single hand to beat its score requirement, and if you can’t muster up enough points, your run is instantly over. There are a ton of Boss Blinds to discover across your runs, and typically feel quite challenging but fair to overcome (outside of a select few, which are quite daunting even on a good run). The nice thing about Balatro is that even if you lose a run, it’s so easy to quickly pick back up a new one that it hardly feels too disappointing when you are defeated. Although I can certainly see how losing a run to purely bad luck might sour the experience of some players.

While every card in your deck has some value, the defining feature of Balatro is absolutely the Jokers. These serve as what would be the items/upgrades in other roguelikes, and you can hold five by default. Jokers are how you can tailor your run in a certain direction by adding all sorts of modifiers and rule-breaks into the equation. If you want to focus on straights for example, you might look for the Shortcut Joker, which allows straights to be made with a gap of one (2,3,5,6,7) along with the Crazy Joker, which gives a large bonus to your score multiplier when your played hand contains a straight. Finding and exploiting synergies is addictive, and with 150 Jokers to unlock, the combinations you can cook up are incredible. If that wasn’t enough, there are even more ways you can alter your deck between rounds.

In between blinds you can spend your money at the shop to enhance various aspects of your deck or purchase Jokers. There are plenty of consumables to consider each time you enter, and come in the form of booster packs that will give you a random card from the selected variety. If you’re in need of some Jokers, you can pick up a Buffoon pack, or grab more basic cards from a Standard pack. Tarot cards can be found in Arcana packs, and will modify individual cards found within your deck. Inside Celestial packs are Planet cards, which will level up the score value of a given hand. Finally there are spectral cards, the rarest of the bunch found in you guessed it, Spectral packs. These have wild effects that can drastically affect your run, such as turning an entire hand of cards into a single suit, or duplicating one held Joker but destroying the rest. You can also find Vouchers which, while expensive, grant permanent boosts to improve your run. These upgrades make you consider in which direction you want your run to go, and provide an incredible amount of options on how you want to spend your cash.

If it wasn’t obvious enough from the screenshots, Balatro is absolutely bursting with style from the visuals all the way down to the sound design. The clattering rain of chips, the satisfying zip of cards when shuffled, the intricately designed card faces, the low crackling roar of the score when you hit it big, it’s all a delicacy to take in. This isn’t even taking into account the smooth psychedelic synthwave soundtrack that accompanies the experience. With almost every card including consumables having their own unique design, it really spoke to the card collector in me. This helped drive me to unlock not just new decks, but seek out challenges to earn new cards to use in future runs.

On that topic, there are also challenge modes that you can unlock to truly test your mettle. These add restrictions or modifiers in a preselected deck, usually hamstringing a certain aspect of your cards while providing a buff in some niche way. One I enjoyed was The Omelette challenge, which removes your ability to earn money from Blinds, but gives you five copies of The Egg Joker, which increases in sell value every round. There are 20 in total to explore, providing ample challenge outside of simply increasing the difficulty of the normal mode.

Balatro turns the simple premise of playing poker hands into something with so many intriguing aspects, it’s hard to put down. Buying and selling Jokers to turn otherwise meager hands into monstrous combos was a blast, and I was always seeing how high I could push my score. With stylish art direction and many flashy synergies, this game provides not only a relaxing but deeply satisfying roguelike experience.

Editor | Website

Corvo is a writer who loves to explore journalism through video games. Writing and editing reviews for triple-A games and indies alike, he finds his passion within expressing his experiences in a fair and accurate manner. Some of Corvo's favorite games are Destiny 2, Mass Effect, and Disco Elysium.

90

Excellent

Balatro

Review Guidelines

While the idea of a poker roguelike might sound like a niche game, the flair and fun found within Balatro makes it an absolute must-play for fans of the genre. Breaking the rules of poker to score millions of chips in a single hand was a rush, and I was always chasing ways to push it even further beyond. While there are a few times you can feel snubbed by the luck of the draw, these are wildly overshadowed by the moments where you hit it big.

Corvo Rohwer

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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