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Balatro Review — A Card Game to Beat All Others

Balatro Jokers screenshot
Image: Playstack

I’d put off playing Balatro for a while. I had a Steam Next Fest demo key waiting for me, but ended up not playing it. Ehhh, poker, I’d thought to myself. I don’t think I’d enjoy it. But then I heard more about the game; I saw people posting on social media about how they’d been absolutely hooked. Perhaps they were right, and perhaps I’d misjudged the game. Readers, they were indeed right. Balatro is one of the most captivating card-based roguelikes I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

Yes, technically Balatro is a poker-based game. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t know a thing about poker. Knowing the hands helps – if you know a full house from a flush, you’ll hit the ground running a little faster. But there’s a cheat sheet that tells you how many points each hand will get you, so you can always know at a glance what will score better. Not that it really matters for long, because within about 10 minutes, Balatro goes completely mad, and traditional poker scoring goes out of the window. And, oh, when it does, Balatro absolutely comes to life.

You see, as you play, you’ll gather Joker cards which are essentially modifier cards. Some will affect gameplay, like letting you play a straight with only four cards (when it should typically be five). Others may give you passive benefits, like freebies in the shop, but the majority will affect the value of your cards. Multipliers is what Balatro is all about: get a Joker that gives you a mult – as the game calls it – when you play a diamond card, for example, or an even number, and your score will soon be going up into the thousands.

Balatro screenshot
Image: Playstack

Ultimately, getting a hand of the most powerful Jokers is the difference between winning and losing in Balatro, but those aren’t the only type of useful cards. Planet cards power up each hand, giving you more base points for playing a pair or a four of a kid, for example. Tarot cards have various effects and can power up the deck in your hand. And standard packs of cards will give you a new card — forget about playing with a standard deck of 52 cards here; the sky’s the limit.

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Special types of cards can change your fate in Balatro, too. Maybe you’ll have a Jack with a 4x mult built into it, or maybe it’ll have a gold seal on it, which means you’ll get a flat $3 when it’s played. Other power-ups give you more chips or more money if you either play cards or leave them in your deck, and having a good selection of them is important if you want to best Balatro.

A game of Balatro basically means playing a number of hands and reaching a certain score. The score gets higher as you progress through the game, so you’ll need to ensure you’ve got adequate Jokers and cards in your hand which allow you to reach each target.

Balatro screenshot
Image: Playstack

There are three games in a round: two blinds and a boss. The blinds can be skipped if you want, and you’ll get a reward for doing so. Maybe something rare will appear in the shop or you’ll be given free cards. You won’t earn any money, though, but sometimes the freebie is worth it. The bosses can be tough and can’t be skipped, however. These have higher targets than the blinds and they also have a power that debuffs you in some way: maybe one of your suits will lose all of its points and abilities, or maybe you’ll only be able to play one specific hand.

Get through nine rounds and defeat all the bosses, and you’ve successfully completed Balatro. You’ll be taken back to the beginning to start all over again. You will want to, though: such is the joy of Balatro. Even if you fail, you’ll be eager to jump straight back in. And trust me: you will fail time and time again. Skill is part of it, sure, but a large amount of your success in Balatro is down to the cards you’re handed. The more you play, the more you’ll unlock, with new Jokers being added for achieving certain goals — there are 150 altogether.

No two games of Balatro are ever the same, which is only one of the reasons why we love this poker roguelike so much. Sure, it’s annoying if your run doesn’t get off the ground — it’s easy to fail early on if you can’t get your hands on a good Joker. But when you’re in the swing of things, scoring tens of thousands with just one hand, you’ll feel like the most powerful card baron there ever was. Simple and devious, Balatro is, quite frankly, brilliant — and I’m going to be playing this for months to come.

Balatro Review – GameSpew’s Score

This review of Balatro is based on the PC version of the game, with a code provided by the publisher. It’s available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Switch and PC.
Editor in chief // Kim's been into video games since playing Dizzy on her brother's Commodore 64 as a nipper. She'll give just about anything a go, but she's got a particular soft spot for indie adventures. If she's not gaming, she'll be building Lego, reading a thriller, watching something spooky or... asleep. She does love to sleep.