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Balatro review - A chaotically brilliant hand of poker

Dan Lipscombe

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Balatro review - A chaotically brilliant hand of poker

Featured Image Credit: Playstack

In 1990 it was a video game that taught me how to play Poker. I was sat cross-legged in front of our family TV playing Casino Games on my SEGA Master System. I learned the hand types, how to bet, and when to fold. It sparked a bit of a love for card games that was expanded as I got older. Now I sit here many years later playing poker, once again, in a video game, this time learning how to break Poker and do some old-fashioned cheating at the same time.

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Balatro, which means a jester or buffoon, is a Poker game. But it’s so much more also. It’s actually a deck-building roguelike, one that plays hard and fast with the rules of the classic game. In order to truly convey how engaging this game is, we have to have a lesson in Balatro.

The goal of the game is to create winning Poker hands from a selection of playing cards. You take on various goals - usually a target number of chips to acquire in order to win - and utilise a system of buffs and debuffs to score big. Let’s say you submit a ‘three of a kind’ using three five cards. You’d earn five chips per card and the ‘three of a kind’ applies a multiplier. The better the hand, the better the multiplier.

Balatro
Balatro
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On top of this, you have access to a number of Joker cards, each one applying buffs. You might have a Joker that boosts the number of chips for each odd number card, or perhaps a Joker that gives a +30 multiplier when you use up all your ‘discard’ options - you can discard cards from your hand and have them randomly replaced. In each round you have a set number of hands you can play in order to beat the target score. Lastly, every three rounds you’ll take on a ‘boss’ which adds a negative stipulation to the round, such as, all face cards are dealt face down, meaning you have to take a gambling chance.

As you progress you’ll earn dollars as a secondary currency that can be used at shops in between rounds. Here you can buy Joker cards, as well as planetary and tarot cards, which I’ll come to shortly. While that might all sound a bit complicated, in practice it’s incredibly easy to pick up. The game does a great job of giving you examples and every card is explained in detail.

Balatro is remarkably engaging, for the past few days it has become my obsession, to try to work out which Jokers to buy in order to push my score higher, or when to discard cards and try to find cards to create a good hand. The more you play and buy cards in the shop you’ll unlock types of deck; a black deck allows you to utilise five Joker cards instead of four, and some decks give you an extra discard or an extra hand per round.

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Balatro
Balatro

Not long after sinking in a couple of hours the game becomes very tactical. You’ll slowly start to see Jokers can be bought to play off each other, syncing together for some outlandish plays and suddenly the game of Poker is broken open, playing more like a run in an action roguelike where your items and weapons synergise. Each hand you play is well thought out - do you play a lower-scoring hand to shift some cards in the hopes of a few face cards dropping in?

Do you use a tarot card that applies bonuses to singular cards? Or perhaps change the suits of the cards to match so you can lay out a straight flush or royal flush? You can buy more ‘standard’ playing cards to add to your 52-card deck which then lets you play five of a kind, or even six of a kind, and then suddenly you’re cheating, tricking, and gambling your way to victory. The intelligent design of Balatro is remarkable; that a developer can take a simple card game and revolutionise how it plays is astounding. It has been designed to eke out ‘one more turn’ even when it’s 1am and you’re on deadline tomorrow.

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My only quibble is one that quite often arises in roguelikes, randomness. Everything in Balatro is random, including the debuffs and negative effects of the ‘boss’ games. Sometimes these can bring a run to a screeching halt through no fault of your own. One run I ended up losing only went south because the stipulation was that I could only play one hand and I had to score over 6,000 chips to win. At that point in my run, it was impossible.

Balatro
Balatro

Aside from that, we have a roguelike with a seemingly endless lifespan. One that you can return to over and over again, trying new tactics, combining more Jokers, doing everything you can to beat a run, and call yourself a winner, even when technically cheating. It’s a game that feels a bit cursed; a CRT TV graphics overlay, and some weird glitchy music. The cursed form of Poker.

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And I love it so much. Even as I’m writing this review all I want to do is close my laptop and play more Balatro. I want to take down those bosses, earn big banks, and completely destroy this card game. While this isn’t a perfect game, it’s one that will stay in my playing rotation for many months to come.

Pros: Injects chaos into the game of Poker through silly rules and wild tactics

Cons: Too many occurrences of bad luck can spoil runs

For fans of: Poker, Slay the Spire, Griftlands

8/10: Excellent

Balatro is available 20 February for Nintendo Switch (Version tested), PlayStation, Xbox and PC. Review code was provided by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.

Topics: Steam, PC, PlayStation, PlayStation 5, Xbox, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X

Dan Lipscombe
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