Review: Balatro will eat you alive and spit you out, and you’ll love it

It would be funny to start a review telling you not to play a game and simply avoid it. If you had read that opening, you’d figured that Balatro was a bad time and that you probably should avoid it. While yes, you might think twice about playing it, it’s for an entirely different reason: it’s too good of a time and you could potentially lose hundreds of hours of your life to it.

Developed by a lone person under the handle LocalThunk out of Canada and published by Playstack, Balatro is a poker game that plays like a deck-builder with roguelike trappings. Initially, that premise would’ve been enough to drive me the hell away from it as I’m frankly tired of playing those, but after all the glowing praise that friend of the site Leo Faria spewed about it, I had to at least give Balatro a chance.

And boy, am I glad I did. This is easily one of the best roguelikes I’ve played in the last couple of years. As a fan of very casual poker, the sort of guy that has spent more time sitting counting cards in both Red Dead Redemption and its sequel than actually shooting fools and riding around the West, Balatro absolutely enraptured me with its mechanics, so much so that I had to double dip and get it for the Switch just so I could play it portably.

Balatro is deceptively simple to start and full of depth, and that it gets even better the more that you play it. The basic plays you can make are exactly the same as the ones in poker, but it’s how the game scores you that sets it apart from old dollar store diskette shareware. You pick up a number of joker cards that inject multipliers and a number of modifiers that directly affect your plays, the cards in your deck, and even the basic rules of the game.

HOLY MOLY! What a combo!

Basically, Balatro wants you to cheat. It really does. And it’s also a big cheat itself. Every round is composed of three blinds, two that have you accruing varying amounts of cash and a third where the boss pops in. Bosses are nasty because they introduce a number of negative effects to the game, such as hiding cards in your hand or simply negating suits, forcing you to change your strategies on the fly in order to win.

With every match, you have to win a certain number of chips to progress further, and you’ll want to build up a line of jokers and other beneficial buffs to boost your score ever higher in order to succeed. And that’s where the insanity of Balatro comes into play, thanks to the sheer amount of combinations and possibilities you can come up with to gain thousands upon millions of chips.

It’s all up to how well you make these work with each other. After every game, you’re given the choice to buy and sell these, where you have to decide if it’s worth, for instance, keeping that one joker that adds up multipliers the more cards you discard for another with an even crazier effect.

After nearly ten hours getting lost in Balatro over the last couple of days, it’s become clear that it’s got the potential to be nearly infinitely replayable if I let it sit in my hard drive, simply because of how my luck tends to shift from absolutely brilliant to pathetic at the drop of a hat. And regardless of the result, I still want to give it another go. It’s the sort of game that I can easily see myself getting hopelessly addicted to, because, well — I pretty much am at this point.

I did?!

Every moment I’ve spent doing anything else but playing it has been filled with thoughts about what I could do differently and how it would potentially make me get further down and hopefully win the game. That’s right: after playing for so long, I’ve still yet to win a game of Balatro. That speaks volumes of how just weak of a player that I am but also about the sheer power that this game has to enthrall someone like me, who has a casual interest in card games, with its wonderfully devious mechanics.

At a glance, Balatro looks like your average card game. It’s colorful, sure, but nothing about it grabs your attention just by looking at screenshots. Cards are funny in the way that they subvert your idea of what a joker card is, and even other participants in your deck tend to look weirder and weirder the more you change them down the line in a game. In motion, the action takes place in a flat view where you can add in CRT filters in order to make it look like a grimy casino monitor, or as sharp as it can ever be on an HD display.

Truly and in all honesty, Balatro has already secured a spot in my ‘games of the year’ for 2024 and I’m be hard pressed to find another like it, with the draw that it has and the staying power that it wields, taunting me to delete it and forget about the whole thing as much as it does the exact opposite, goading me to jump in and try again. Curse you for getting me to play this, Leo!

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