Balatro Review

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I’ll be the first to admit, I had absolutely no idea of Balatro’s existence until only a week ago, hearing its name mentioned leaving me with more questions simply on how to pronounce the thing than anything else. After seven days dealing cards and winning stacks of chips though, I’m left with only one question and that’s how on Earth I can tear myself away from its addictive clutches.

Balatro is a rogue-like deck builder based on the game of Poker, players going up against a series of increasingly tougher blinds each one with a target number of chips you’ll need to win in order to continue on to the next. To earn chips, you’ll need to create Poker hands, the harder combinations awarding bigger and better combination of chips and multiplier. Threat not, even if you have no idea what a full house or flush is, the game includes a handy cheat sheet listing every hand with examples a tap of the screen or button away.

Balatro Review Screenshot 1

Unfortunately, you’ll only have a limited number of hands and discards each round to achieve the blind’s chip target, failure to do so sending you back to the start again all your goodies (more on those in a moment) gone. As you work your way through each ante (the game’s equivalent of a difficulty), the targets will continue to get higher, so much so you’re going to need some additional help through tweaking your deck and collecting point-boosting cards and consumables. This can be done by spending the cash you earn each round in a store, replenished every time you visit with an assortment of new cards and booster packs. Planet cards for example allow you to level up Poker hands, meaning any time you use them going forward you’ll get an added point and multiplier boost. Tarot and Celestial cards meanwhile can affect your deck directly, allowing you to switch suits of cards, enhance them with bonuses, make copies and even remove them entirely. Tickets are the most expensive but provide big lifelines in the shape of bigger hands, additional discards or better pulls in the shop.

Perhaps the most exciting of the bunch however are the Joker cards, up to five of these able to be held and each one providing some sort of permanent effect to your score or how you play in general. This could be offering an extra four points to your multiplier with every heart card played in a hand or throwing in fifty extra chips should you play a straight. Some of my favourites include a glitching Joker card that offers a random boost to my multiplier every hand as well as a card that makes hearts and diamonds the same suit and clubs and spades too essentially making it much easier to pull of flush hands. There’s even a card with a banana on it offering a massive multiplier boost but a 1 in 4 chance it gets destroyed each round. With well over a hundred of these cards, uncovering each and every one along with their ability is a blast and the potential combinations are near endless especially when you throw in the other upgrades and consumables too.

Balatro Review Screenshot 2

While every ante will contain a standard small and big blind each requiring little more than besting their chip target, boss blinds add an interesting twist on things such as making diamond cards worthless in hands or losing $1 every time you play a card or perhaps most cruel of all, forcing players to beat the chip target with a single hand. They keep things feeling fresh and exciting, adding a random and stressful final challenge to each ante that put your skills to the test.

Even after you’ve successfully beaten the eighth ante (counted as a successful run in Balatro), the game doesn’t end there, the player given the option to continue on and push their luck as far as it will go or kick off a new run with a different deck of cards or difficulty. Each deck provides their own unique perks, from giving you one extra discard per round to starting you off with $10 extra in your pocket to removing all face cards from the deck. Even though these tweaks may seem relatively small, they truly do change up the way you have to play, making it worthwhile replaying the game over and over with each. Then there are stakes, the game’s equivalent of making things even tougher for the player and once again adding even more replay value to the overall package. If you’re feeling particularly brave, then repeating the same deck with different stipulations will certainly keep you busy as discards get removed, targets raised and costs of items made more expensive.

Balatro Review Screenshot 3

The overall presentation of Balatro is simple yet effective. Everything has a real video Poker vibe about it and cards are clearly labelled regardless of whether it’s the Joker cards or a Jack of Diamonds that also happens to be made of glass. In fact, Balatro is fantastic when it comes to communicating every aspect of its idea across to the player. While I’m fairly versed in the world of video games, showing my wife and even parents a few rounds of Balatro was enough for them to want to get involved and quickly snatch the controller away from me entirely. Balatro definitely has an addictive quality to it regardless of your experience with video games.

Quite frankly, it’s a miracle I’ve even managed to finish writing this review, my past week or so dominated by Balatro. When I’ve been playing it, I’m absolutely absorbed in its clever and satisfying gameplay. When I’m not playing it, I’m thinking about my next run. When I’m with friends, I’m excited to talk about Balatro and their winning combinations of Jokers. Put simply, Balatro is an incredible experience and one of the best (if not the best) game 2024 has seen so far.

Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Playstack

Total Score
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