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Balatro Review

There are some games that keep you entertained for a weekend. Some keep you busy for an hour on a weeknight after failing to settle on what new Netflix documentary to watch next. But then, every so often, a game like Balatro turns up and takes hold of your entire life – to the point where you open up your wardrobe and the only four suits your eyes can make out are clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts. This poker-influenced roguelike may appear straightforward at first, but take the risk of picking it up, and its ludicrously fun gameplay loop won’t let you put it down.

Never has the power of placing down a simple pair of kings garnered more delight than in Balatro, where it can suddenly conjure up an 82 x 146 multiplier as you watch the resulting equation satisfyingly solve itself in front of you. A deck-building roguelike quite like no other, it sacrifices the combat that has made so many in the genre such as Slay the Spire popular, and doesn’t even attempt a story that the likes of Hades told so well. Instead, Balatro relies solely on the power of playing cards to keep you engaged, and it does so with aplomb, gripping my attention tight with its relatively simple but effective toolset.

Tasked with hitting increasingly higher scores set by a small blind, big blind, and boss in each of the eight “antes” that make up a run, it's your job to engineer poker hands by discarding cards and hoping you draw the ones you need. Play these hands before running out of your limited attempts to build a high enough score and you’ll move on to the next challenge, with the ability to improve or modify your deck between encounters. Masquerading itself as a poker simulation, Balatro begs to be experimented with to the point of breaking, setting out its rules just as quickly as it encourages them to be broken.

That experimentation requires you to grasp only the very basics of poker (you need to know next to nothing in reality) before manipulating your deck to let you score your preferred hands more frequently. For example, my chosen tactic quickly became to focus on creating as many flushes as possible (five cards of the same suit), so I’d often go about transforming as many of the cards in my deck to the same suit as possible to make this easier. To do that, you’re reliant on spending money wisely in between rounds and crossing your fingers that the right cards are dealt your way. Of course, luck is still involved, just as it is when it comes to both actual poker games and all the best roguelikes. Balatro crucially never feels unfair, though, with every you’re corner backed into being of your creation.

An incredibly fun loop that achieves what every great roguelike aims to do - finding the fun in failure.

The majority of this luck comes from the gamble of opening the booster packs offered to you after each round. The quicker you reach a target score, the more money you’ll earn that round and the easier it will be to improve your deck. These packs vary in type, each offering a selection of cards with abilities that may or may not help you out. Celestial packs contain cards depicting the planets of our solar system, with each tied to a different scoring poker hand As I often go for flushes, I’m always on the lookout for Jupiter, which boosts the multiplier score of any flush for the rest of that run. Then, there are arcana packs, which contain tarot cards with wild one-time effects. Some can turn three of your cards into a different suit (also useful to flush fanatics) while another may double the money in your bank to help bolster future investments.

There are plenty of other card types to find that I won’t spoil here, simply because discovering and unlocking each is a big part of the thrill of Balatro’s larger progression, as things you previously not thought possible reveal themselves to you with regularity. There’s nothing that will give you a permanent advantage from run to run beyond unlocking more exciting options to stumble upon, but striving to do so still creates an incredibly fun loop that achieves what every great roguelike aims to do - finding the fun in failure. An unsuccessful never run ended in frustration for me, but simply made me want to start over as quickly as possible so I could watch that multiplier number satisfyingly tick up and up again.

It’s very easy to lose yourself in Balatro, not only through its moreish gameplay, but also in its hypnotic swirling background art and accompanying musical score. And while it hardly pushes any graphics engine to sweat, the confident art direction shines through in some of its more fantastical card designs, with an old-school CRT filter giving an eerie, off-kilter edge to its otherwise colourful charm. As do the grinning jokers that adorn the cards at the heart of Balatro, even its name - the word itself being an ancient Roman term for a professional Jester. These age-old harlequins provide the crucial component to its thoroughly modern formula, however. Despite devilish appearances, jokers are both your friends and the key to unlocking Balatro's biggest scoring combinations.

Despite devilish appearances, jokers are both your friends and the key to unlocking Balatro's biggest scoring combinations.

Jokers are (to use a confusing metaphor) your ace in the hole. They offer huge multipliers and influential abilities that can often dictate the course your run will take. You may be looking to turn your whole deck to diamonds, only to stumble across a joker that scores you 40 more points every time you play a spade, meaning your tactics take a complete 180-degree turn mid-run. With initial room for only five jokers to take effect at a time, however, you need to think carefully about which ones to pick and how they synergise most effectively with one another. It’s a delicate balance, but get it right and you’ll reap the rewards as absurdly high-scoring hands become a breeze to play.

This will ultimately lead you to reach the end of a Balatro run, by which point you’ll have likely hit 24 ever-increasing point targets. But that isn’t the end. You can then seamlessly up the ante (literally) and carry your victorious deck into an endless mode to see just how high your score can go. Once the end of the line is inevitably hit, your first victory with a given starter deck will encourage you to play again using a newly unlocked one, each of which comes with its own boons and drawbacks – those range from changing the number of point-scoring hands you can play per round to starting with no face cards whatsoever. Unlocked all of the 15 decks? Try winning with each in the increasingly escalating difficulty modes, which offer a real challenge for even those who feel like they’ve worked out all of the tricks that Balatro hides up its sleeve.

I’m nowhere near this point, however. With well over 20 hours logged so far and still a handful of decks to unlock, I’m still thinking about that next run and what twist of fate will stand in my way. If there are any gripes to be had with Balatro, it's that sometimes failure does seem to just come down to pure luck, whether that’s through nothing of use appearing in the card store between rounds, or simply the right cards not appearing in your hand at a crucial moment. But it feels wrong to consider this a genuine negative when its two parents – poker and roguelikes – are both hugely reliant on the thrill of chance. Even the best-laid plans can often fail, but never once yet have I felt cheated. Ironic, for a game that encourages nothing but cheating.

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