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Balatro Review

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Not to blow my own trumpet too much, but I am pretty good at poker. At least, Texas Hold ‘Em. I’ve placed in tournaments at the casino, and the only reason I never cashed out my winnings from online poker is because I was too young to have had an account on there when I first started playing. 

So when news of a poker roguelike hit, I thought that this was finally going to be the game that got me into roguelikes. And Balatro has done that, though not necessarily for the reasons I was anticipating.

Balatro is brilliant, not for the poker aspect so much, but for the endorphin inducing sound and visual effects that accompanies this cerebral roguelike.

Balatro review 1
Balatro – poker, but different.

Simple in premise, Balatro is a roguelike game that focuses on building poker hands. Beginning with just a regular deck of playing cards, you are given a hand of eight cards in which you must create traditional poker hands. Each card has a chip value, along with a multiplier. Each round you have a small blind, big blind and boss blind chip value to beat, and doing so increases the ante. Make it through the 8th ante and you have successfully completed your run of Balatro.

Boss blinds are, as the name suggests, increased blinds with a modifier attached to them. You will face one at the end of each ante and they can be an annoyance: like one that turns all your cards in your first hand face down, to the devilish, like one that decreases the level of each poker hand played during that round.

The blinds will increase exponentially the longer you progress, and it won’t be long before you will need to be racking up some serious chippage. Here is where the genius of Balatro comes into play though.

After completing each blind you will receive a payout based on blind difficulty and how quickly you accumulated the required amount. This can then be spent in a shop that sells all kinds of other cards. There are Tarot cards that can buff playing cards in your deck by changing their suit, structure or even just generate additional consumables for you. Planet cards increase the level of your hands when used. Each hand starts at level one, but these wont nearly be high enough to see your through. Increasing the level grants additional chips and multipliers. Finally, there are Spectral cards, somewhat less common than the others, but arguably slightly more powerful too. Though sometimes, these come with a caveat.

Balatro review 3
Which Joker are you using?

Then of course, there are the Joker cards. There are 150 of these within Balatro; some are available from the beginning and some need unlocking. All are very useful though.

It would be impossible to list them all here, but they range from the obvious such as increasing your multiplier when a specific suit is played, to the useful where you can skip steps when trying to make a straight hand (eg. Allowing you to play 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 as a straight, missing the 3 out) to the outright bizarre. One Joker I found was “glitched”, meaning it would add a random multiplier every hand. Useful, but not totally reliable.

However, it is the noise Balatro makes when adding to your chip count or increasing your multiplier that is so cathartic. In the upper ante echelons, there will likely be loads of multipliers to trigger. Balatro is aware of this and it starts subtly speeding up the process, which again feeds back into your ears as you are doing something right.

Balatro works best when all the cards you have in your deck, the Jokers you have collected and the upgrades you’ve made, all start working together. There is no right or wrong way to complete a run in Balatro, and due to the complexity of the systems working together, any sort of optimum route will take hundreds, if not thousands of hours, to find. On one attempt, I quickly found a Joker that added a 3x multiplier for each Diamond played. Then, I found a Tarot card that allowed me to change two cards into Diamonds, and another that duplicated the previous Tarot card I had just played. With my deck now about 80% Diamonds… I still failed. But that didn’t matter, I loaded up a new game and found a new workaround: this time I had a Joker card that increased my multiplier based on how many Jokers I had equipped. I quickly routed out as many as I could and would change them on the fly if a better one became available. Result: another failure. Still, having a ton of fun here though experimenting.

That said, you can see when a run is going to come to nothing quite quickly if things aren’t going your way. You need a bit of luck in Balatro, but show me a roguelike where that isn’t the case.

Balatro review 2
Play a card, any card. As long as it is 5 of ’em!

I can’t remember the last time a game had me thinking so hard whilst playing it. At one point I even had my calculator out to ensure I was making the right choice during a clutch play. And even now, I am constantly learning things: I just discovered that you can move your Jokers around in their slots, so it makes absolute sense to place your big X multiplier in the last slot for the biggest gains. Though I suspect this is something made more obvious when playing on PC. The console version does have a cursor if you use the right stick, but there is never really enough on screen for it to be a requirement. The UI is clear, concise, and the CRT filter reminds me of the old video poker machines.

Balatro is unique in that when you aren’t playing it, you’re thinking about it. And when you are playing Balatro, you’re really thinking about it. There is no time limit, or enemies to defeat (unless you count the blinds), so you are allowed to think about your moves in advance. And if things don’t go your way this time, simply start again with your newfound knowledge. And then again and again, just because it is so much fun. Then you’ll look at the time and realise there is almost no point going to bed, so you may as well keep playing Balatro until the sun comes up. 

Perhaps that last bit may not be recommended, but with a game this good and cerebral, it may be hard to resist.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Easy to learn
  • Incredible depth when you get going
  • Constantly learning new things
  • Fantastic presentation
Cons:
  • Luck still required
Info:
  • Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, PlayStack
  • Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch, PC
  • Release date and price - 20 February 2024 | £12.49
Richard Dobson
Richard Dobson
Avid gamer since the days of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Grew up with the PS1 and PS2 but changed allegiances in 2007 with the release of Halo 3.

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Parksey1972
Parksey1972
1 month ago

I heard Xbox Era talk about this at the weekend. They gave it maximum score too 10/10.
Tempted to buy it now after hearing/reading two vert positive reviews.

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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Easy to learn</li> <li>Incredible depth when you get going</li> <li>Constantly learning new things</li> <li>Fantastic presentation</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Luck still required</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, PlayStack</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch, PC <li>Release date and price - 20 February 2024 | £12.49</li> </ul>Balatro Review
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