Balatro is a unique poker themed deck building roguelike created by solo anonymous developer Local Thunk. Released on all current home consoles and previous generation entries for both Sony and Microsoft users. A release is also in the works for smartphone users both on Android and iOS, however no date has currently been announced. For the sakes of this piece I found myself gravitating towards the PC Steam (specifically on the Steamdeck & Mac port) & Nintendo Switch releases.

Going back to the first line I’m aware I used a lot of word to describe the genre of the game. As gamers we are very used to hearing FPS or RPG and getting it. This beast is a little more difficult to put in a specific corner like a lot of other games. I guess if pushed I would call it a card game but that’s severely underselling what Local Thunk has offered us here. It feels almost Slay The Spire like without the action and gambling instead of dungeon crawling; even that feels like a slightly inaccurate description. Now we are all positively confused we will delve into the core game play loop as that’s what makes or breaks a roguelike. 

Upon starting a run you are faced with a screen giving you details of a small blind, big blind and boss blind. Each blind with all intent and purpose is a game of poker with the goal of how many chips you need to win to either progress or meet your inevitable end. Tasked with going from small blind to boss blind you are presented with the option, play or skip. You choose play and the casino classic begins your hand dealt and ready to place a scoring collection of cards from your hand. Skipping will give you a small bonus ranging from profoundly trivial to game saving. To those with no to passing knowledge of the light flashing, tinnitus inducing parlour game extraordinaire that is the house fear not, at all times you can hit run info to be told what a flush is and how good at making money it is or not. You will have a couple of hands to try and hit the blind chip goal, also some discards to try to curate your plays as best you can. Try that one in the Casino, I dare you. Then you go to play your first hand and its important to remember its you versus the dealer, so no need to practise your poker face with this one. Fingers crossed you drop down a royal flush typically the highest scoring hand and decimate the first, potentially last actual poker game of the run.

After a fleeting moment of Im James Bond in certain Royale film passes, a breakdown of how you played and cash earned will show with a invite to a shop. Offers of Jokers, Card Packs, Consumables & Vouchers will greet you will open arms. 

Jokers act as passive buffs to equip, the most basic of which is a simple addition of a 4 times multiplier. The rarer joker cards afford you increasingly crazier passive effects. An early favourite of mine the “Shortcut” joker, allows you to play non consecutive straights (For the uninitiated a straight is a consecutive hand 2/3/4/5/6 for example; this would allow 2/4/6/8/10 to count as a straight).

Vouchers are small passive bonuses the aren’t equipped like the jokers. So you don’t have to manage the number you are using at once unlike a joker. They will tend to set you back a bit more money than a joker as they offer upgrades to your run that are often unconditional. 

Card packs are similar to a pack of ‘Magic The Gathering’, could be gold could be trash. Different packs exist that could populate the shop. Celestial packs grant a planet card which increase the level of a poker hand making it a more valuable hand.  This can snowball to the point where a pair hand is a more fruitful play than a royal flush hand. The Arcana pack will grant you tarot cards which have altering effects that mostly modify the cards in your deck. The World card as a quick example changes up to three selected cards to the suit of spades, now your deck is more likely to get a spade flush. Spectral packs are very similar to Arcana packs but the cards modify to a much higher extent and often come with gambles or disadvantages. The Buffoon pack is a collection of joker cards which we touched on earlier. Standard packs give you the option to add a playing card to your deck. Want an extra king you got it, some more aces your in luck. See I told you Balatro was a deck builder and now you have decks that can play impossible hands such as five of a kind.

Adding to the deck building mechanic is variables that can effect any card. A foil card which will give you extra chips if played. A purple seal that can help generate you extra tarot cards if said card is discarded. With much more effects available. A personal favourite of mine is the polychromatic which gives you a multiplier of your multiplier in game, which if on a suitable joker can help send your chips into the stratosphere.  

There is a good chance you have come across a hard synergy and blinds are being blown away by you. Dropping a pair with a joker that multiplies your spade cards and would you look at that, the pair has a spade in it. Chips are piling in and it feels good, a little too good. The next hand you drop has literally set the score counter on fire it was so good, the grey matter in your head washed with dopamine.  That fun needs to come to an end with the boss blind.

Boss blinds play the same way as any other blind with an extra mechanic that can act as real roadblock. The extra mechanics range from debuffing certain suits to expecting a seriously high amount of chips from you, or giving you your cards face down to let luck fully decide the fate of this run. If the boss blind is overcome you will up your ante where we continue play with higher amounts of chips required and potentially more brutal boss mechanics.

Managing to get through eight antes will be a victory for the run. You will be feeling like a champion amongst the cards. Then Balatro offers something that normally turns me totally off in roguelikes, an endless mode. In my experience what tends be a monument to tedium, as your indestructible build melts anything that attempts to pose a threat. In the case of Balatro you have nothing to fight its just the draw of the cards and increasingly higher numbers of chips to chase to really test how good your deck actually was. Now at this point its important to say, you will lose. The house always wins in endless mode, its just how much of a fight your deck can put up. The inevitability of your upcoming failure is what to me makes this post game victory lap truly thrilling. It is a testament to Balatro and its quality that it made a fun yet maybe inaccurately named endless mode.

The more hands and runs that are played the more cards are unlocked to play with offering further chaos with potential synergies. Extra decks can also be unlocked that play different right from the start of the run.  Those who need a bit more spice will look forward to unlocking the challenge runs. These start with a set of cards or jokers with a designed mechanic either to battle for or against you during the run. Pre-designed mechanics not your cup of tea but want further challenge? After having a successful run you can increase the stake of your deck making the next run harder in some way. 

If you don’t want to fully commit to unlocking everything the game has to offer, an unlock everything option is available. I don’t know how much I would recommend this for new players as it could be a little too much at once. Alas for console hoppers like myself, its a great option for veterans of Balatro to jump into a fresh save on another platform with everything ready to go. If you also like playing online slots, you can download joker123 apk.

Balatro has a truly unique game feel that I have personally never experienced. With a fitting art style of a seedy video poker machine on a CRT it evokes that gambling feel. It’s endless amount of build possibilities will keep you coming back for more. With it’s easy to pick up hard to master gameplay, Balatro really captures that one more run feeling that any rougelike worth its salt needs. A game like Balatro doesn’t come round often so if you take anything from me go play it yourself. Your experience will be worth more than anything I can put into words, trust me.