Balatro review: poker face – The Verge

In Casino royale, James Bond gets a bit of poker advice: you never play your hand. You play the man sitting across from you.

Okay, but what if you just played your hand? What if there was no one on the other side of the table? Balatroa new turn-based card game available on most platforms takes the mechanics of poker and turns it into the foundation of a compelling roguelike, the subgenre of games where each playthrough is a single dangerous attempt.

Balatro is a poker game, as Scrabble is a word game. Knowing the language and odds of poker will help you, but ultimately this is a logical game. There are no bluffs, no pots, just the pure composition of poker hands, satisfyingly combined with an exciting game loop.

This makes Balatro very simple: every turn you try to play a good hand and score points. You can discard to try your luck for more useful cards in your deck. There are a few other possible actions, but this is more or less how the game plays. Balatro keeps your options limited, making your decisions feel and plotted carefully, turn by turn. After beating a round, you’ll be rewarded with upgrade options that make your deck more powerful. Collectible jokers provide passive bonuses; improved or added cards can tilt certain hands; tarot cards are actions that can be used when you are in trouble; and so forth. Part of the fun of roguelikes is learning each new dimension of the game through repeated playthroughs.

It’s a familiar but welcome rhythm. In one run I tried to go for flushes as often as possible, which meant acquiring buffs that made my hand bigger (making it more likely I’d draw the cards I needed) and gave me score multipliers for specific suits (making I maximized the points I would score when I landed a flush). Another more successful playthrough was built around picking hands of two pairs, which were easier to draw and more consistent, although they gave me lower point totals… until I topped up the multiplier and matched them with complementary wild cards.

The obvious comparison is Kill the Spire, considered by many to be the king of roguelike card games. Likewise, stacking certain powers and buffs can make you feel like you’re cleverly breaking the game. But unlike many other roguelikes, the familiar logic of poker is used Balatro more accessible – and more immediately convincing.

Some minor complaints: I would describe Balatro‘s vibe as “slightly eerily retro,” and part of me wished it had committed itself more strongly to a theme or idea. I don’t think every game needs a plot, but its user interface Balatro never stops having exactly that feeling. After a few hours of playing, I never noticed that I was staring at the same handful of menus and buttons. There are some friendly nods to astrology, which are only confusing because they no longer matter.

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There’s also something a little inelegant about the layout. First, it’s far too easy to accidentally hit discard instead of play. On the Switch, they’re mapped to the X and Y buttons, and if you mess that up even once, that’s enough to ruin a run. Another minor gripe was playing on handheld – probably the most natural fit for a lo-fi roguelike – I found some of the text and visual elements a bit too small.

If this sounds like nitpicks, BalatroThe precision and balance elsewhere invite scrutiny where that polish doesn’t exist. Mechanically this is as solid as it gets and extremely impressive considering this comes from a single developer. An early access dear, Balatro has clearly been heavily tested and refined thanks to an adoring community.

A successful roguelike asks the player to find a balance between strategy, risk and reward, and a bit of luck. It feels early to initiate Balatro inducted into the genre’s Hall of Fame, alongside, among others Rush hour, Hades, In the breakAnd Spelunky. (I would also add the very underrated Slice and dice to that pantheon.) The measure is usually how long people play it and what depth that continued repetition reveals over time. But if I had to bet early, I guess Balatro goes the distance. Last weekend I completed my first run. Then I did it again – four more times.

Balatro launched on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox and PC on February 20.

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