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Balatro Review – Clever Deck

The ante has been well and truly upped.

It’s not so much that Balatro snuck up on me – I’d definitely seen it in passing in the lead up to its release in late February – though I’m ashamed to admit that I’d mostly written it off as “a poker game” and thus not of as much interest to me as something like Inscryption or Dicey Dungeons when it comes to weird indie takes on tabletop staples. 

But while this new joint from LocalThunk and Playstack doesn’t do the kinds of things in the narrative space that would typically pull me into a quirky card romp, the core of this game is so confoundingly, compulsively and concerningly addictive that I don’t think I’ll ever escape its clutches now that I’m all-in. It’s the kind of game that creeps into your mind, has you thinking about plays during work hours and rushing home to fire it back up as soon as you’re able.

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The core of Balatro seems innocuous enough. It’s a deckbuilding roguelike of sorts where the goal is to earn chips by playing a series of poker hands, with a full deck (at least initially) and a limited number of hands and discards per round to reach a target score. The trick here is that there are a number of added systems in play to boost your scores by ridiculous amounts, initially asking you for triple-digit tallies before quickly requiring that you game each mechanic in increasingly-broken-feeling ways to start raking in chips by the millions.

It’s one of those games that’s tough to explain but quick to master, with most of the learning coming from experiencing all of the distinct possibilities and outcomes that can happen in a single game. Broken up into “antes” consisting of three blinds apiece, your rounds are bookmarked by the opportunity to spend earned cash on cards that will augment your scoring power, such as boosting the base chips and multipliers gained from specific poker hands to adding on bonus effects and even straight up altering your deck to add, remove or transform the cards within it.

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The biggest tactical conceit comes by way of Joker cards, which sit along the top of the screen as you acquire them and add all manner of wild effects to your game from heaping bonus chips onto certain card types, granting extra turns or greatly boosting your multiplier values based on some very specific circumstances. These get more and more interesting as you play and unlock them, and after a while you’ll find you’re playing a whole other game in just figuring out new ways to have them interact and take advantage of their abilities.

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Of course the crux of it all is that everything you do in Balatro is up to chance – from the cards you draw, to the ones that wind up being available in the shop or pulled out of purchasable booster packs, and even the win conditions of the final round in each ante. There’s absolutely no way to know how any one game will play out, let alone whether you’ll make it to the eighth and “final” ante, making each game feel distinct and no one strategy more valid than the other. The sheer volume of different combinations of scenarios is vast enough that you could play thousands of games and never have quite the same experience.

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And you will play thousands of games, because Balatro pulls out every dirty trick you’d see in a casino to keep those dopamine hits coming hard and fast. The on-screen sights and sounds are intoxicating for how simple they are, with the effects of cards being drawn or activated, chips falling or even just the thunk-thunk-thunk noise of a blind being completed all precisely designed to get you going, but in a way that’s very much self-aware and not at all insidious. Balatro flips the traditional casino card game on its head in a way that makes buying into its nonsense a willing part of the experience.

It’s all superbly moreish, and after putting dozens of hours into this outwardly-simple but inwardly complex little game I’m still finding new tricks, new gags and new reasons to keep playing on and on. With various starting decks to unlock along with tough pre-designed challenges and the intrinsic allure of trying to discover just how high of a score I can achieve by betting on some supremely fucked plays, there’s still so much here for me even after putting in ungodly hours. I see and hear it in my sleep.

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Conclusion
Balatro is one of those deceptively-approachable ideas that will absolutely consume you the more you start to puzzle out its secrets and intricacies. It somehow makes playing the same game over and over feel completely fresh in possibility each time, and doles out just enough new ideas and just the right amount of intoxicating feedback to keep you thinking "one more game" well into the AM.
Positives
Deceptively simple to learn but wholly satisfying to master
Off-kilter aesthetic and devious undertones are a delight
Combination of chance and strategic deckbuilding is a thrill
Tons of reasons to keep coming back for more
Negatives
Some pretty gnarly boss conditions can ruin a good run
I seriously can't stop
9.5