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Player One Reviews Balatro

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By  Player One
Category: Player One


Balatro Review: No Joker

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When I first played Balatro, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Sure, it was a fun game, but I was expecting love at first sight.

 

Then I put 50 hours into the game without even realising. Balatro is a mesmerising experience.

 

Developed by LocalThunk and published by Playstack, Balatro is a deck-building roguelike where you must beat score thresholds (called Blinds) in order to progress. To do this, you play poker hands worth varying amounts of points. 

 

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Being based off of poker means Balatro is a breeze to jump into. Using a standard 52 card deck makes the game immensely understandable at a glance. Where most card games need to spend time bringing the player up to speed with the mechanics of that specific game, Balatro can skip right into the fun stuff: tearing poker to shreds.

 

In order to beat higher Blinds, it isn’t enough to just play high scoring hands. Eventually, the scores will grow out of reach. That’s where the Jokers come into play. Joker cards upgrade your run, providing benefits such as increased multipliers for specific hands or allowing straights and flushes to be made with four cards rather than the usual five.

 

On their own, most Jokers are incredibly simple, but when combined with each other, they create combinations that can score points in an incredibly satisfying way. Figuring out how Jokers play off each other to optimise a run is the core of Balatro’s fun. 


This is helped by Balatro’s adherence to its own rules. If you think something might work, chances are it will, no matter how broken or absurd it might feel. There’s a level of emergent gameplay I’ve never seen in a deck-builder before.

 

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Jokers aren’t the only way to customise your run. There are also Planet, Tarot, and Spectral cards. Planet cards increase the point values of the hands you play, while Tarot and Spectral cards usually customise your deck. Where Tarot cards are almost always beneficial, Spectral cards usually have some trade-offs for potentially very high rewards. Despite the risks, I never passed on Spectral cards just to see what weird effects they could possibly have.

 

Balatro is also an incredibly snappy game. There’s no downtime in between runs, no dialogue or cutscenes. It feels like a classic arcade game. All you can do is play again and again, going for higher and higher scores.

 

The game’s wonderful aesthetic helps with the arcade feel. A retro CRT filter covers the game, the music oozes lo-fi funk and the ding! of every scored point makes racking them up all the more satisfying. The Jokers themselves are all wonderfully drawn and full of character despite being static images.

 

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While the speed of the game definitely helps keep the pace up, the lack of any narrative might be a turn-off for some. There’s no real reason to play Balatro other than, well, playing Balatro. Personally, I don’t mind it since the game is so engrossing, but I could feel myself growing fatigued at points.


The game can also be frustrating at times. Certain Blinds have special requirements, referred to as Boss Blinds. These range from debuffing all cards in a suit so they score no points to requiring the Blind be beaten in a single hand. While accounting for the Boss Blind is part of the strategy of Balatro, having a run be brought to a grinding halt because of a specific Boss Blind never feels great.


If you think something might work, chances are it will, no matter how broken or absurd it might feel. There's a level of emergent gameplay I've never seen in a deck-builder before.


At some points, I also felt the game’s repetitiveness sink in. While I didn’t mind the repeated runs, I sometimes felt like I was constantly drawing the same proverbial hand. It wasn’t enough to sour the overall experience, but I did come away from some runs feeling slightly burnt out.


This is also partly because, as fun as Balatro is, it really doesn’t bring that much new to the table. The game is an incredibly refined take on the deck-building roguelike genre, but it doesn’t incorporate anything fans of that genre haven’t seen before.

 

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Luckily, Balatro’s gameplay really is fun enough that it never truly became an issue. When I call it an incredibly refined take on the roguelike deck-builder, I mean it. Balatro has the best deck-building gameplay I’ve ever seen. The wacky combos, supremely satisfying gameplay, and incredibly simple to pick up and play nature make Balatro worth adding to anyone’s deck.

Balatro was reviewed by Zack Goutzoulas using a personal copy for Nintendo Switch