Balatro is a mighty fine example of the ingenuity of game design, with it taking the age-old idea of poker hands and evolving it into one of the most addictive video games experiences that I’ve played for a long, long time.

Check out some screenshots down below:

At its core, Balatro is a roguelike built around the concept of building up a deck of cards and then using it to make scoring poker hands. You’ll draw a set amount of cards per turn, discard those that you aren’t happy with to re-draw more, and then use the cards you’ve got to put together scoring combinations. This could be something as simple as a high card or a pair, but the best scores will come from the likes of four of a kind, a straight flush, or a royal flush… you know… just like in poker. However, you won’t be playing these cards against conventional opponents, but instead face multiple rounds of play (known as Blinds) where you’re tasked with hitting a set score. If you succeed, you’ll move on to the next, but if you fail, you’re forced to start again in true roguelike fashion.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, what makes Balatro more interesting are the special Joker cards that you can unlock, with each introducing a different modifier which affects gameplay in a variety of ways. This might be by increasing the scores of even or odd card values, giving a multiplier to set hands, or allowing you to include gaps in hands you play, with each granting you a game-changing bonus that’ll often be the determining factor in just how successful your run through the game is. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting the right combination of Joker cards in play and seeing your scores skyrocket up, but with Balatro taking a roguelike approach, there’s no guarantee that you’ll always get what you need.

There are other factors in play too, with players able to level up the hands they play or use consumables that can affect your deck in varying ways, with these coming in three varieties: Tarot Cards, Planet Cards, and Spectral Cards. Again, the effect of these varies per card, but they’re single use items that only affect your current run, so you’ll want to use them immediately to make the most of their effects. Or maybe you won’t – some of these buffs may not suit your playstyle, so it’s up to you to pick and choose which ones you want to add to your deck.

“It’s hard not to just dive into another playthrough, with Balatro taking that ‘one more game’ concept and turning it into the cancellation of your plans for the rest of the day just so you can keep playing.”

On paper, these mechanics sound simple enough, but there’s so much nuance to Balatro’s clever gameplay loop that it’s hard to put it down when you start playing. Whilst the random nature of drawing cards and HOPING you get what you need to complete a hand is tantalising in itself, the ingenuity of utilising the strength of your Joker cards in synergy with your hand adds a puzzle-like twist to proceedings that makes each success you achieve all the more rewarding. There were SO many times where I was on the edge of defeat, but a successful draw and the perfect Joker card pushed me through to success. It’s nice when it happens through luck, but when you plan out a play and it’s successful? It’s absolutely thrilling.

Improving your deck throughout each run is equally absorbing, with the player accessing a shop between Blinds where they’re able to purchase individual cards or booster packs to buff up their deck. You’re not playing with a conventional fifty-two card deck here, so you can pad it out with kings and aces if you manage to get lucky with your booster packs. However, with players earning cash through effective gameplay, they’ve got to be wise in their spending – especially since this is also where you’ll buy Jokers or consumable cards. There’s a lot to consider at any given time, so you’ve got to both think and spend carefully if you hope to succeed.

And believe me, Balatro can be tough. Whilst the game is easy enough to get to grips with, figuring out the best combination of hands, Jokers, consumables, and so forth can take a LOT of trial-and-error, with failures aplenty as you face ever-growing score targets to succeed. I haven’t even mentioned the boss encounters, which give you another whooping score target to achieve whilst also de-buffing your deck in a variety of ways. There can be some nasty difficulty spikes that come from nowhere, so yeah, you can expect to fail a lot as you work up to that first success.

Check out some screenshots down below:

You’ll have to start from scratch when you fail too, which is par for the course for a roguelike title but can be a little bit frustrating when you feel like you’re on the cusp of having an unstoppable deck. Fortunately, there are some things that carry over between runs, with players unlocking new starting decks to use and additional Jokers that can often be a big game-changer the next time around. It all adds to the learning curve and ultimately makes it even more rewarding to play, though building up your deck effectively throughout a run will still be significant.

It all comes together to make for an experience that is simple in design, but so damn entertaining that I’ve found myself hooked in – even after beating it multiple times already. Every playthrough I’ve had has felt different to the last, whilst the ever-changing deck possibilities and Joker combinations add a level of unpredictability to the game that challenges players to take a totally different approach each time. Sure, you’ll always be playing poker hands, but the bonuses on offer and modifiers in play will push you into a game of risk versus reward as you weigh up the possibilities that each hand offers. It’s hard to put into words what makes it work so well, but believe me, once you start playing Balatro, you won’t want to stop.

Balatro Review

Balatro has taken a simple concept and turned it into one of the most tantalising and addictive deck builders that I’ve ever played. Playing the perfect combination of Jokers to pull off a victorious hand is always rewarding, whilst seeing your deck build up with each successful blind gives a satisfying sense of progression that makes the puzzle-like gameplay all the more captivating. And when you do fail? It’s hard not to just dive into another playthrough, with Balatro taking that ‘one more game’ concept and turning it into the cancellation of your plans for the rest of the day just so you can keep playing. It’s that damn good.

It can have some sharp difficulty spikes and losing can be frustrating when you feel you’ve built up a special deck, but that’s par for the course as far as the roguelike genre is concerned. It certainly won’t stop you having a blast with the game, and believe me, once Balatro pulls you in, you’ll find it hard to stop playing.

Developer: LocalThunk
Publisher: Playstack
Platform(s): PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch