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Balatro review: only fools would sleep on this moreish poker roguelike

No joke

A straight hand of poker from Balatro, with the RPS Bestest Best logo in place of the Queen
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Playstack

There's a particular boss encounter in Balatro that always feels like it's cheating a bit. In this mesmerising poker roguelike, each stage is made up of three blinds - small, big and boss - with the blind essentially being a high score you have to hit by playing different kinds of poker hands - your traditional flushes, straights, pairs and so on. Each hand has its own number of chips and multiplier bonuses associated with it, and Balatro's whole deal is about shuffling closer to victory by making the most of the cards you're dealt. While some blinds are tiny, stretching to just 300 or 450 early on in a run, they quickly start ramping up into the tens of thousands as each successfully defeated boss blind ups the ante and the accompanying stakes. Reach an ante of eight, and bingo, you've won a run of Balatro.

The boss blind I keep coming a cropper with, though, is The Flint. This sucker not only halves a hand's chip score, but it also cuts its multiplier in two as well, and I've yet to figure out exactly how to defeat it. Sometimes it appears with a blind of just 600, but other times it's been an enormous 22,000. In fairness, all bosses have little tricks like this. Some will debuff certain card suites, making them useless in your overall score count. Others may only let you play one hand type the entire match, while the cheeky Tooth will deduct you $1 for every card used. But Balatro isn't simply about beating the odds with smart and intelligent card plays. It's about bending, twisting and abusing those odds to your will - also through smart and intelligent card plays. Cheating isn't just encouraged in Balatro. It's damn near mandatory, and it's all thanks to the brilliantly conceived joker cards that give the game its Latin-based name.

A four of a kind hand of poker is about to be played in Balatro.
Several cards are being selected from a hand of poker in Balatro
A two pair hand of poker is about to be played in Balatro
A straight poker hand is played in Balatro
Boss blinds rarely appear in the same place across multiple runs. Their tricks are always the same, but their accompanying blind scores can be wildly different. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Playstack

The jokers are really the heart and soul of Balatro's deckbuilding here. You don't need to know a thing about playing actual poker - I didn't before trying the demo a few weeks back, but its very beginner-friendly tutorial sets out everything you need to understand and get to grips with. Ultimately, it's really just about playing the best hand possible to score the highest number of points to beat the round's blind number. The twist, however, is that even if you played a straight flush (the highest scoring poker hand) each and every time, you'd soon be laughed out of the room once the blinds start ballooning in size. There's no way to win 'honourably' in Balatro, and so collecting the right crop of jokers to start racking up points quickly becomes your number one priority early on in a run. There are 150 of them to buy, pass up and discover in total, too, resulting in games that never feel the same no matter how many two pairs and four of a kinds you offer up along the way. And to make matters even more selective, you can only have five of them equipped at any one time, so you'll either have to sell or hold off on newer joker cards that come up for sale in the end-of-round shop if you spot something that looks particularly tasty.

The most desirable jokers are obviously the ones that jack up your multiplier score to help you earn mega points, but while some may do this universally for each scoring card, others may only trigger when you play certain suites or numbers, tempting you play fast and loose with your limited number of discard opportunities to try and find a more strategic combination. Other jokers don't have anything to do with multipliers at all, leaning instead on generating lots of quick and easy cash, increasing your hand size or discard options, or even bending the rules of certain poker hands to maybe let you form straights with cards one rank apart, for example.

The boss blind menu in Balatro
The cash out screen after completing a successful round of Balatro
You can skip small or big blinds to get certain effects depending on what skip tokens are attached to them. Here, I get a big $30 pay out after the successful completion of that round's boss blind. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Playstack

These can benefit you in smaller, less direct ways than simple points gathering, and finding synergistic combinations, or even just experimenting with new cards you've never seen before, makes every run feel fresh, new and unpredictable. Anything is possible here, and with so many viable routes and strategies to (quite literally) try your hand at, Balatro deftly avoids falling into the same old ruts the more you play. There's no one best strategy to adopt or work towards here. Rather, it's about making the best of what you get dealt, both in the type of hands you're able to play, and the cheat combos you're accruing in the background.

But it's not just jokers that are vying for the attention of your hard-won earnings. The end-of-round shop has several more vital goodies you'll want to invest in over the course of a run, such as consumable tarot and celestial cards that add special buffs and effects to your regular deck cards. Again, you're limited to carrying two of these at any one moment, but these can also be used to add extra multipliers to certain cards when played, or they might reward you for keeping that card in your hand or discard pile instead, adding extra risk to the mix as you try and massage the numbers in your head.

In addition to this, planet cards can level up different hand types, increasing not only the number of chips they generate, but also their accompanying multiplier. I had made the mistake of ignoring these in some of my first Balatro runs, but soon realised that these are just as important as a great run of jokers to hitting those late-game blind scores. Then there's the lure of regular and jumbo booster packs, which give you a greater array of potential cards, jokers, planets, tarot and celestial cards to pick from, but which may of course yield nothing that can really benefit you in the here and now.

The shop screen in Balatro, showing different booster packs, vouchers and planet cards to choose.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Playstack
The shop screen in Balatro displays five different standard cards to pick from.
The shop screen in Balatro displays three different kinds of special card to pick from.
The end-of-round shop has lots of gorgeous-looking booster packs to pick from, provided you have the cash. You won't visit the shop if you end up skipping a blind, though, so there's a good risk-reward system here for engaging in the small and big blinds. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Playstack
A full house poker hand is played in Balatro
Decks on Deck

At time of writing, Balatro isn't Steam Deck verified, but it works perfectly well. Text is perhaps a smidge on the small side, but the cards are always nice and clear and gamepad controls work just as well as your mouse. It's a great fit.

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Playstack

Weighing up these different avenues of attack is all part of what makes Balatro such an inviting and devious little puzzle box, but its rigorous mental gymnastics is only one of the ways it manages to hold you in its grip. Its dreamy, electronic lounge music meshes perfectly with the hypnotic, almost inkblot-style backgrounds that noodle away behind all the numbers, menu boxes and CRT overlays. And together with the hard, xylophone-like dings of your multiplier score as it starts rapidly scaling up in intensity, the game's as visually and aurally satisfying as a perfectly performed riffle shuffle.

The atmosphere is so on point, in fact, that even defeat manages to feel like just another roll of the dice. If there was one major complaint I could level at Balatro, it's that some runs can feel like they're doomed to fail from the start, either because the shop doesn't offer up any jokers to buy for the first couple of blinds, or the luck of the draw means you're just dealt a succession of bad hands. It's easy to see the writing on the wall in cases like this, but it's a testament to Balatro's relaxed and easy-going nature that you'll want to carry on playing anyway. Indeed, I've yet to actually win a full game of Balatro during all my hours of reviewing it, but even repeated defeats to my old friend The Flint have left me feeling like tipping my imaginary cap with a congratulatory, 'Well played, old chap,' at the end of it. It's far too mellow to feel frustrating, and I've always gone straight back in for another round, determined that this time, maybe this time, things will be better.

The game over screen in Balatro
Your guide Jimbo is a smug little so and so, but he does have a lot of good card puns reserved for your moment of defeat. I'll give him that. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Playstack

Of course, if you were being cynical, you could argue that much of Balatro's appeal draws from the same well of bad habits formed by serial gamblers. And to some extent, yes, it does. It taps straight into that 'one more turn' mentality that's seen many of us play a strategy game into the wee hours of a morning, but the crucial thing here is that Balatro isn't malicious about the way it deals its cards. There's no wagering or betting of chips involved, and as with many roguelikes, you begin each run as a blank canvas, starting from scratch and building your own luck as you go. Nothing is lost on defeat - and what you gain is simply better knowledge for next time.

Ultimately, Balatro is a game that delights in the art of making numbers go up - big, fast and on fire - by whatever means necessary. It reels you back in not to exploit psychological weakness, but to celebrate the inherent joy of learning, mastering and beating a system gamed around impossible odds, all while being just a teeny bit naughty in the process. It not only invites you to sit at the table, but openly hands you all manner of scalpels to tear into it, make it bleed, and gut it for everything it's worth - and it will smile and applaud you for it every step of the way. Balatro is very generous, in that sense, even when victories are seemingly few and far between. Indeed, the only way I ever felt cheated by Balatro is when I had to stop playing and not spend more time playing Balatro.

This review is based on a review build of the game, provided by publishers Playstack.

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