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Balatro PC Review

Sure the genre has totally seized the gaming world in the last couple of years, but Balatro has managed to reach even further still beyond the ever-growing expected audience of a roguelike deck-builder. It’s already being placed on a pedestal next to some all time indie greats and I even saw one person claim it as their ‘trapped on a desert island’ game. It hasn’t even been out for three weeks! This addicting little title is introducing many to the space, people that have previously found it to be impenetrable. I think it’s the poker. A hand of cards with attack, defence, and other wordy abilities is still something that many folk outside of a Trading Card Game background see as overly complex and exhausting to break into. A standard deck of playing cards on the other hand, is universally appreciated – woven directly into our culture and almost innately understood at this point. A socially-nostalgic fifty two card deck comprised of four suits of thirteen ranked values and infinite possibilities. I take one with me everywhere I go (mostly just to end up playing Grid Cannon or Regicide).

Poker hands themselves are a little trickier for those unfamiliar but the foundation of playing sets of similar cards relating to colour, value, or an incrementing ladder makes it easy enough for anyone to pick up, with the staying power of this type of game doing the rest to keep newbies and veterans alike engaged. Plus the gambling for a good draw plays more thematically than ever, adding to the tense excitement of lucky wins and outrageous losses. Of course there’s more to each run than just playing a bastardised version of eight-card draw. Deck manipulation, passive bonuses, and activated skills are all present as expected, but there’s also the inclusion of hand scoring improvements and the management of invested money by controlling spending. Naturally regular combat is out of the window, instead being replaced with a boss rush of sorts where the goal is to reach an increasingly large amount of points by taking every advantage of the short supply of discard/redraws and plays at your disposal. Jokers, that are represented as jesters (or balatros, if you will), are the main source of powering up hands with all sorts of effects across the 150 available, though most need to be unlocked via progressing through victories with different starting variables and degrees of challenge.

Playing A Hand

They can range from utterly broken to absolutely pointless, such as the one that adds ‘+4 Mult’, meaning multiplier, to your played hand’s value. This may seem massive without context but in order to reach the exponential growth (and beyond!) of the blinds, meaning score, required to pass each stage this power becomes little more than a drop in the ocean two minutes into a run. Consider then a different joker that has red and black cards count as both suits of their respective colour, making flushes almost impossible to fumble and single-handedly building the foundation of entire playthroughs. And that’s not even a particularly fantastic one. The span of their usefulness is baffling and the problem is that as you continue to build out your deck and set of support Jokers, you become more and more pigeonholed into a favoured hand type or specific combo, just like with any deck-builder. But here there’s even less wiggle room for a backup plan and not seeing the right things in the few shop options available after each round is far too often simply the end. Especially so if you find yourself just a few ‘battles’ away from a boss blind that exactly counters your plays with its unique special effect, such as disabling a suit you’re relying on or locking out the specific combination you need. There’s very little you can do about that unless you happen upon one of the rare items that allows interaction with them, but they are usually hiding within the runs where you have no use for them. Alternatively, if you instead try to branch out into having multiple options available for scoring you’ll quickly find you’re not able to rack up the numbers sufficiently to keep pace.

This is not about difficulty mind, because Balatro is not particularly difficult at all if you see even just a couple of the right pieces. I’m referring to the utter chaos of the randomisation and the limited scope of what is usable with your current strategy. The developer himself mentioned he hasn’t played many games in the now esteemed genre in an effort to not taint his own ideas but I feel that this inexperience has perhaps also led to adverse effects. But it is good – excellent even. Often a ton of fun and thrilling to experience. But it’s far too often ended anticlimactically by a single bad roll of the dice and zero means of recourse, instead of presenting a more refined set of options depending on how you’re currently doing. Big surprise! This poker game leans more into gambling than other similar titles! Just a preference thing, I suppose. Either way it’s still a blast – just make sure not to take it too seriously. Instead I’ve found it more fun to play fast and loose in a mad frenzy to hunt the perfect collection of effects to bounce off of each other because the real game is after you’ve charged through the main eight antes, meaning levels, needed to complete the run and are looking to see how far you can take it beyond in endless mode where the numbers become mind-bogglingly large.


Though I have no doubt anybody who likes cards, poker, video games, or joy will have a great time with it, I feel I should also note that it does wear itself out significantly faster than most of its brethren. I’m still playing Cobalt Core, Astrea, and Oaken from last year, for example, but I already feel I’m almost done with Balatro. Whilst there are still a few things to unlock, more challenges to try out, and plenty more alternate starting decks and difficulty ‘stakes’ to get through, I’ve found that it far too often devolves into an all too familiar feeling game plan. There’s not enough flexibility to experiment with due to the lack of support for weaker hand types, barring a couple of brilliant jokers, and others are too sporadic to rely on unless, once again, you get a unique set of opening options. It hits like a truck when everything is wonderful and new. It’s so exciting to discover things and the addictive nature of just wanting to play another hand takes hold deep, to the point you’ll be trying to squeeze in games whenever you can, making it a quintessential handheld title by the way. However it doesn’t possess the same long-lasting grip that many of its inspirations do, ironically probably because of the limited reach of the poker that makes it what it is. A fabulous gateway for new players and something fresh for those of us already obsessed with digital cardboard rectangles, Balatro is an explosion of glee but it burns out fast.

8 out of 10