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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Gambling's addictive?! Balatro's poker-based roguelite style showcases exactly that

I'm not much of a gambler. I play it safe in a lot of aspects of my life. But you put a poker system in a game and suddenly I'm willing to risk it all. It's how I made my money in Infinite Wealth, it's the vehicle to deliver the satisfying crime drama that is Sunshine Shuffle, and the thing y'all can point to at the end of the year when I'm undoubtedly an unapologetic gambling devotee? That's Balatro.

By blending the inherently addictive nature of the all-consuming roguelike format with the already go-big-or-go-home nature of poker, LocalThunk has ruined me.

After just a handful of sessions and... let me check my notes here... nearly 50 hours of gameplay, I think it's safe to say that Balatro is pretty good.

Ante up and I'll deal you a hand of review notes to take with ya on the way to the Balatro store.

An animated GIF of Balatro. It showcases the scoring phase, showing the chip value and multipliers of each card as it is scored before cutting to the score display that counts up and eventually gains a fiery effect as the numbers grow higher and higher.

​Just the Facts

Developer: LocalThunk

Publisher: Playstack

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch

Price: $14.99

Release Date: February 20, 2024

Review key provided by publisher.

Balatro is one of those lightning-strike indies, one that takes the industry by storm with its demo garnering the interest of press and streamers alike for months before release. It's how we first got introduced to it a few Steam Next Fests ago and how we understood that the solo dev LocalThunk had something special on their hands with this poker-based deckbuilding roguelike.

LocalThunk is a bit of a mystery. Not much is known about the solo developer behind the project, and it all adds to the sneaky appeal of Balatro's appearance on the scene.

When you open Balatro, you're greeted by Jimbo the Joker, a constant presence who both taunts and tutorializes you through the game's unique approach to the roguelike deckbuilder. Its mechanics are cleverly simple but will consume you. You build poker hands by drawing and discarding cards to defeat that round's "blind," a specific chip total you have to surpass to continue your run. Your chips are derived from the value of each card (blackjack rules, with aces counting for 11, face cards counting for 10, and numbered cards valued accordingly) combined with each unique hand type's base score and multiplier.

Here's an example scenario: a pair, which has a base value of 20 chips and a multiplier of 2. Holding a pair of aces would net you 22 chips (face value) plus 20 chips (base for a pair), added together and multiplied by 2 for a total of 84 chips for that hand. Each rarer hand type comes with a higher base value and multiplier as you go.

The gameplay unfolds with a restricted number of hands and discard opportunities in each round. You have to strategically form hands using any number of cards and can discard up to five cards at a time, doing your best to meet each new blind chip total to keep your run going. Beat each one and finish with a boss blind that adds some kind of difficult modifier to diminish your deck, such as nullifying all club cards or restricting you to a single hand type for the entire round. These twists are clever and can disrupt a run in seconds, especially if you're relying on the strength of one hand type above all else.

Beat the boss blind eight times and you've won. Easier said than done. Like I said, this game thrives on gambles — you might decide to discard crucial cards and hope for a better draw or go all in on chasing a strategy that will either send you hurtling toward sweet success or spectacular failure. This is where Balatro's most unique features come in and make for an ingenious twist on the game's central poker mechanics.

An in-game screenshot of Balatro. It showcases the scoring phase as a flush hand is highlighted out of the hand and the score display is literally lit on fire.

It starts with the Jokers, a set of cards you can purchase after each round with money earned beating blinds. Jokers add unique modifiers to nearly every aspect of the game, allowing you to make straights and flushes with less than five cards, for example, or increasing the hand's multiplier for every even-numbered card you use.

There are unique decks that can alter your starting point for each run, giving you more hands to play or more money to start. Each deck has a handful of difficulty modifiers that encourage you to push for multiple wins for each deck.

Then there are the tarot and celestial cards — consumable cards you can buy in booster packs between blinds — which enhance cards or level up the score for various hand types, respectively. When you combine these with Jokers, you find the unique deckbuilding potential of Balatro come to life. You start with the familiar — straights, three of a kinds, full houses. And then you add on Balatro's twisty modifiers to make it something entirely new.

Make no mistake, there's a learning curve here. Each new system layers on its own new thing to consider when building a run. But while it takes a second to wrap your head around, the poker deckbuilding eventually takes hold of your brain and never lets go.

You start to sink into strategic experimentation and run concepts: "this is an all-straights run, let's get those straight-specific Jokers and level up the straight hand TO THE MOON." Or "I'm gonna try to convert all my cards into hearts and clubs ASAP and just pump the game with flushes left and right."

Just like the card game it emulates, Balatro can sometimes be unforgiving in what it hands out, and it can beat you down. It took me an embarrassing amount of hours to finally get my first win, but when I did, I was ready to do a jig around my apartment it was so satisfying.

You start with the familiar — straights, three of a kinds, full houses. And then you add on Balatro's twisty modifiers to make it something entirely new.

It's the kind of game whose systems are built so perfectly and, with it starting in such a familiar place, Balatro is so much easier to pick up and play than others of its kind. You don't have to learn new resource types or an entirely new set of cards. It's all familiar.

Of course, if you aren't much of a playing-cards person or are unfamiliar with poker on the whole, that may not be true. But fans of deckbuilders in general owe it to themselves to try and learn at least, because Balatro's gimmicks make for one of the more satisfying deckbuilders I've played in a long while.

The core systems are sound and form the well-crafted bedrock of the game. Then there's everything else LocalThunk does to dress up the experience and emphasize the game's best aspects.

An animated GIF of Balatro. It showcases the effect of the Ouija card as a hand of varied playing cards flip and all turn into ace cards.

Balatro's design aesthetic is built to keep you obsessed. There's the silky "lava lamp" background that gets more involved and flowy when in the middle of a round but relaxes and spreads out once you're "safe." Flames engulf the score display as you play a hand that singlehandedly defeats the blind and grow in intensity as your chip total does.

The plonky sound effects that play as the game cycles through your scoring for a round hit right in the dopamine production factory of your brain.

The enhanced card effects make it feel as satisfying as pulling a holographic card in real life (shoutout to the colorful polychrome effect) and the glitchy TV filter adds a slight edge to the whole affair, making the experience feel like something forbidden you aren't meant to be doing.

I have to give an extra shoutout to the varied and charming card art all across the game, from the goofy Joker variants to the beautifully designed tarot cards.

Casinos should take note, because if the gambling experience was a bit more like this, I'd be knee deep in debt right now.

It took me an embarrassing amount of hours to finally get my first win, but when I did, I was ready to do a jig around my apartment it was so satisfying.

When it comes to negatives, I don't have many for Balatro. Except maybe the fact that the game stole my attention away from so many other aspects of my life and I demand it give it back.

If the core loop doesn't grab you, this game won't do much for you. That's really all there is to Balatro. There are no synergies between runs; it's as run-based a roguelike as you'll find out there. Progression can feel kind of slow as you have to fulfill very specific needs to unlock new decks and Jokers, and the game feels at its fullest as you unlock more and more of the hundreds of hidden things it has waiting inside. Each new unlock makes winning even easier, so while it may take a while to get your first win, expect to run into a streak before too long.

There is a challenge mode that unlocks after you've won once with each of the game's base decks, complete with a unique set of restrictions for future runs, to satiate the most hardcore of Balatro players. But even 50 hours in, I haven't quite gotten to tinker with that. And that's okay. I've gotten way more than I expected out of just running through basic runs again and again.

An in-game screenshot of Balatro. It showcases the opening of a Celestial Pack, with a planet card of Mercury highlighted. By choosing it, it'll level up the Pair hand, adding 1 to its multiplier and 15 to its base chip value. There's a starry background and a hand full of Joker cards with various designs above it.

Balatro is a simple and satisfying roguelike built on the familiarity of poker to make it one of the most addicting games I've played in a long time. The game's not content to just disrupt your daily routine, but also extends to the genre itself, setting a new standard for roguelike deckbuilders. By not trying to do too much, Balatro achieves gaming nirvana easily and produces an impossible-to-put-down experience that has me still hungry for more after 50 hours of playtime. For those who aren't familiar with poker or used to the cruel luck of the draw, Balatro can seem a bit brutal. But if you persevere, there's a special game waiting for you in Balatro.

Video Games Are Good and Balatro is . . . GREAT. (9/10)

+ an extremely satisfying core game loop, a game built to be addictive, easy to pick up and play

- progression is a little slow, the luck of the draw can be brutal, you may lose any last bit of productivity you had left

The key art for Balatro. Against a swirling background of red and blue, a metallic font reads "Balatro" with an ace card making up the middle A in the title. A spear-like staff stabs through the ace card, with blue and red on either end.

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