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Balatro review

Need to Know

What is it? A roguelike deckbuilder where you cheat outrageously at poker.
Release date Feb 20, 2024
Expect to pay TBA
Developer LocalThunk
Publisher PlayStack
Reviewed on Asus ROG Ally
Steam Deck TBA
Link Official site

Imagine the rush of winning at a high-stakes poker table. Now imagine you’re winning because you’re cheating so blatantly that you might as well be drawing your own numbers on the cards. You put down a 2, then another 2, then three more 2’s, to make everyone’s favourite poker hand, 5 of a kind. This is a constant joy in Balatro, a roguelike deckbuilder that successfully scratches an itch to cheat in a casino that I never even knew I had.

You start off with a deck of 52 traditional playing cards. Each round, you draw eight cards and can play four hands to try to score enough chips to beat the dealer’s score. Each playable hand has a set score and multiplier—e.g. a pair gives 10 points and a x 2 multiplier. The value of the cards you played to make that hand is also applied. So a pair of 10’s would be 20 x 2 = 40 chips. Nice!

Hmmm, actually, considering the first dealer you face requires 300 chips to beat, you’re going to have to learn to play more ambitious hands quickly. Hands like three of a kind (x3 multiplier), four of a kind (x7 multiplier) and Royal Flush (er, let’s aim a little lower for now). You get three opportunities to discard up to five cards and redraw in the hopes of building a superior hand. Deciding whether to settle for a weaker hand or burn through one of your precious discards is the first of many mini-gambles Balatro constantly forces you to make. Good, solid, slightly maths-heavy stuff, but it’s the first visit to the shop where Balatro starts truly showing its hand.

You can buy cards that level hands up. A High Card, with its pathetic x1 multiplier, is easily the easiest to make/worst hand in the game. Unless you level it up so much that it can eventually be as effective as a five-card requiring Flush. You can buy Tarot packs that add modifiers to your cards, like extra chips given, money payouts if you discard them, or even massive multiplier bonuses for holding off from playing them at all. Invest in packs of playing cards and you can expand your deck so it can make that aforementioned 5 of a Kind and other nonsense that’ll have poker veterans leaving the table in disgust.

Then there are the joker cards, sitting in a row at the top of the screen, happily causing chaos. You can have up to five of these potential game-changers in constant play. There’s the Banana Joker, which will add a x15 multiplier to your score, but has a 1 in 15 chance of destroying itself after every round. Scary Face throws in a 30 chip bonus for every face card you use. The Hack lets some of the more rubbish cards like 2’s and 3’s play twice, and is delightfully depicted with a picture of a lonely clown doing a dire-looking standup set (the game’s full of great design details like this). Some jokers push you towards seemingly counterintuitive strategies, like discarding the highest scoring cards for cash, or big rewards for only playing one card. Oooh, but if I levelled up High Card a few times, I could be onto a winner here…

Get those jokers to sync up—like combining one that offers an increasing bonus for every Straight played with another that lets you make Straights with just four cards—and you’ll soon be playing hands that score in the tens of thousands. Sixty hours later and this still feels incredible to pull off. And what’s deviously brilliant about all this is no matter what you invest in, you’re always neglecting something. Buy the best jokers and you’ll likely leave your poker hands dangerously underleveled. A voucher that reduces shop prices will benefit you constantly later on, but will you even see later on if you don’t upgrade your deck now? Meanwhile, the number needed to beat each dealer is constantly, ruthlessly ticking upwards.

All deckbuilders suffer from the inherent randomness of card draw. You’re going to get particularly unlucky runs, and Balatro is more upfront than most about how many of its decisions are pure chance (it is, after all, a game about gambling). But because it gives you so many options on how to improve your deck, and is forgiving of plenty of minor mistakes and mishaps as you experiment and improvise, it rarely feels like you didn’t have a chance of strategizing your way to success.

Perhaps that’s all just a clever smokescreen, the equivalent of the house settling my bar tab so I keep blowing my children’s college fund at the roulette wheel, but it’s a damn convincing one if so. You’re trying to craft a deck that can survive and triumph against even the most horrendously unlucky odds, and 99% of the time, it feels like Balatro offers you the tools you need to make that happen.

Safe hands

The other 1% of the time is spent battling its nastier boss fights. Before I start moaning about them, let me clarify that I love that a card game about making poker hands has boss fights. For the most part, I love their execution here, too. Each ‘Boss Blind’ introduces a new rule. Some are mildly annoying, like debuffing all your spades, or the first hand being drawn face down. Other Boss Blinds feel like the dealer has dealt in Ornstein and Smough. One decreases the level of whatever hand you play. Permanently. Another only lets you play one hand. Actually, is it too late to score this PC Gamer’s first ever zero?

Some come close to breaking Balatro’s spell. A sudden massive spike in required score is the kind of unfair challenge that introduces Mr Steam Deck to Mrs Fireplace. True, you are forewarned, two rounds in advance, exactly what boss is coming, And multiple cards can counter or reroll the boss blinds (so long as they show up, of course).

Possibly my favourite run yet warned me that the boss blind wanted a horrific 200,000 chips. I panic-sold all but my most essential Jokers, so I could afford multiple rerolls at the shop, desperately praying for a card that could potentially get me out of this. I emerged 212,000 points later stunned, laughing, and wondering if the deck I’d cobbled together could possibly keep paying out this well (lol nope). I wouldn’t trade triumphant moments like that for a slightly fairer, more conservative game. But ask me again right after a boss blind has torn my deck to shreds and I may have a different answer.

Have I mentioned how eerily beautiful it is? It’s like watching a Poker game on a cursed TV accidentally tuned to 1972, filmed by a crew gradually coming down from hallucinogens. But this isn’t one of Devolver Digital’s acid-aesthetic nightmares, more gently surreal and oddly soothing. There’s a lot of game here, too. New cards, challenges, and decks are steadily unlocked. One deck, which gives you an extra joker slot but leaves you with one less hand to play each round, made me occasionally wonder if I’d be handing this review in in 2046. A less pathetic writer wouldn’t brag about having successfully beat that deck in their review. Good for them.

Pleasant as it’s weirdly hypnotic music is, another track or two wouldn’t have hurt. But this is a nitpick so minor my fingers can barely bring themselves to type it, not when I could be using said fingers to take another crack at unlocking more cards. This is an absolute triumph, the reason Valve should rename their handheld ‘the Balatro machine’. That it’s the developer’s first game is just rude, frankly, equivalent to going to Vegas and drawing a Royal Flush first time. Something I bet I could pull off with the right mix of cards. I can’t wait to spend another 60 hours finding out.

The Verdict


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A roguelike deckbuilder debut already worthy of joining Slay the Spire and Monster Train at the King’s table. Essential.

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