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July 2024


Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: PlayStack
Developer: LocalThunk
Release Date: Feb. 20, 2024


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PC Review - 'Balatro'

by Cody Medellin on July 1, 2024 @ 12:10 a.m. PDT

Balatro is a hypnotically satisfying deckbuilder/poker roguelike where you play illegal poker hands, discover game-changing jokers, and trigger adrenaline-pumping, outrageous combos.

Card battling games are the hot new thing. Every month, you're guaranteed to find a game that asks you to use a randomly selected card from a deck to fight your way out of any situation. Balatro is yet another card battling game, but all it takes is one glance to see that it is unlike any other card battling game you've seen before.

The first major thing you'll notice is that the game has no narrative. You aren't playing as a specific character, your opponents have no personality to them, and there is no overarching plot. This is simply a game where your only objective is to make progress, so you try to complete eight stages to beat the game.

One major element is that your deck is comprised of simple standard playing cards. Just about every other card battling game takes on the identity of a trading card game, but this one goes for the standard ranks and suits (e.g., kings, jacks, hearts, clubs, etc.) and other iconography that are familiar to even those who have no interest in cards. This immediately gives Balatro an edge, since the TCG layout of cards can be more intimidating than something you're likely to see in a typical casino.

The gameplay loop is pretty simple. On your turn, you draw eight cards from your deck and select cards to turn in for points. The game uses the same rules as classic poker, also known as five-card craw, to determine hand value while the cards determine the number of points the hand will score. For example, turning in a pair of 10s is better than having a king high card, but it'll easily get beaten by a straight with a three low. You're given the chance to exchange any number of cards to hopefully draw better ones, but those are limited, as are the number of turns you have to beat the level. Each stage consists of a small blind level and a big blind level and culminates in a boss fight.

While the game uses scoring elements of five-card draw in its gameplay, you don't need to have even a basic understanding of that card game since Balatro tosses a bunch of those rules out the window. For starters, aside from the fact that you have eight cards to create a hand you'll submit, you don't need to actually turn in five cards at a time. If you want, you can simply turn in only one or two cards to score. The cards can have their own powers, as some of them grant score multipliers if you keep them. Even choosing specific card backs gives you similar rewards or things like being able to get an extra discard move or an extra hand move.

Unlike in regular poker, the joker is used in Balatro, and this is a real game changer. They are a permanent part of your deck — at least for the current run — and they're automatically activated instead of having you draw them from the deck. They also have completely different abilities, ranging from granting a bonus multiplier if you use a spade to letting you call a straight or a flush with four cards instead of five. There are over 150 jokers to find in the game, but the kicker is that you can only house five of them at a time. You must be more strategic with your choices instead of simply hoarding them all in hopes of creating an unstoppable deck.

Just when you thought that the use of 150 different jokers would transform the game, other card types are thrown in. Tarot cards can be acquired and used to do things like change the suits of a few selected cards or change the actual value of the cards. Planet cards increase the multipliers and point values for scoring hands. Celestial cards let you transform any of the normal cards in your deck, infusing them with abilities like adding a multiplier if the card is in your hand but doesn't get used or adding bonus points if it gets used in a specific hand type. Like the jokers, the abilities for these cards are numerous, and part of the game's joy comes from discovering what crazy thing a card can do next.

Aside from the different cards at your disposal, the blinds become a factor in your overall strategy. Playing a blind and beating it quickly awards you with cash and the ability to use it to buy more jokers or booster packs to uncover other random card types. You can also skip the small or big blinds to get a random assortment of buffs for the next round. Things like getting a free booster pack or getting a significant cash multiplier are available when you skip, but you lose the ability to buy more cards as a result. Only boss fights prevent you from skipping them.

You're going to need all of this to conquer Balatro, as the boss fights can get quite gnarly. Some bosses will double their chip goal. Others will nullify certain suits. Some will make you discard some of your cards, and others will turn cards face down to make them unusable. It becomes nearly impossible to beat the game on your first try, but in true roguelike fashion, losing means gaining something new to help in future runs.

All of these mechanics make for a wildly entertaining experience. As in any TCG, you'll plan your deck for specific strategies, like increasing the likelihood of getting a flush or tailoring your deck to favor a specific suit. The reward comes from seeing the scores skyrocket with large multipliers, which the game heavily encourages when it shows your score catching fire. The rules are easy enough to understand, so you won't unknowingly stumble into points or a bad situation. While luck plays a big part in the game, the odds never feel impossible, and there's a lot of encouragement to go for just one more run. It's an addictive game loop that transforms this title from being just a game you can play in short bursts to one where you'll unknowingly spend hours on a session.

If you had to find a complaint, it would be the fact that some cards don't initially seem like they can be activated. This occurs mostly with cards that have transformative properties, as you're expected to choose the cards you want to be changed before actually choosing the card that contains the action. It's never explained anywhere that a specific order is needed to do this, so you might be tempted to skip the card you want to use unless you experiment with the selection order.

A card game of this type doesn't require an ornate presentation, but what is here remains captivating. The cards are clean and legible, despite the attempt at heavy pixelation. The fake CRT filter does a good job of making the game look even more retro. The swirling background is slightly hypnotic with its slow movement, but it isn't distracting even with various color changes. The music is rather calming overall, but the one sound effect you'll come to love is the one that plays when points are being scored. Just like the sounds of a slot machine, that chime proves to be rather intoxicating.

Balatro is a perfect fit for the Steam Deck. The game supports the device's 1280x800 resolution, and the text remains clean throughout. Cloud saving is supported, so you can easily move between devices without having to worry about starting over. The frame rate easily hits a locked 60fps, even though this game doesn't necessarily need it to play smoothly. More importantly, the game squeezes a little over five hours of game time out of a full charge.

Balatro is excellent all around. The concept is simple, and while the various card types seem overly complicated, the game remains easy to understand no matter how many rules there are. It's utterly enjoyable to the point where you'll keep coming back no matter how many times you lose to a boss with a ridiculous modifier. For anyone who likes card games, Balatro is a must-have.

Score: 9.0/10

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