Balatro – PS5 Review

For once we’re relieved that our review code for Balatro by solo dev LocalThunk was PS5 only. We started playing this time last week and have put in multiple sessions into the early hours since. Our PS5 reckons we’ve played twenty-one hours already. That’s with a break from Friday to Tuesday in the equation. The last time we remember a game this compelling that we ploughed serious hours into was probably World of Warcraft in 2005. Or Civilization II ten years prior to that.  As a result, we’re glad to have the respite with our not having it on PS4 too.

Balatro is loosely based on a Cantonese card game called ‘big two’ that shares similar mechanics. That being hands of up to five cards that ape poker hands. Starting with a high card being worth merely face value increasing in scoring yield up to a straight flush or royal flush. They are scored the same at any rate. You can also score beyond normal card hands like a five of a kind or a flush with five identical cards.

This is down to the excellent modifiers across four categories, firstly jokers that either increase the yield from card scores or increase the multiplier for a scoring hand. Then you have tarot cards that allow you to change the attributes of cards as well as duplicating them. Next you have planet cards that amend the scoring for the respective hands, Pluto being the modifier for a high card for example. Finally, you have spectral cards that generally have a risk reward mechanism in terms of how they modify your deck or jokers.

Each ante has three phases: a small blind, a big blind and a boss blind. You can skip the first two phases but by doing so risk going into a boss blind underequipped. You see, at the end of each phase you get a payout made up of the blind you’ve just beaten and however many hands you have left. Typically, you have four hands to beat a blind and you also have opportunities to discard in the event you don’t have a decent hand to start with.

The final phase of each ante is the boss fight. These start as simple as one particular suit being excluded from scoring any points, through one of our least favourites reduces the level of the hand you play. The latter one is particularly egregious as it can put you on the back foot for the remainder of a run if you even manage to get past the boss in question. It’s particularly hard to face early in a run as you’ll barely manage to garner enough points to get by sometimes. Without listing them all in turn, it’s best you encounter them yourself. One handy joker can nullify the boss ability altogether which we found most helpful.

Once you’ve beaten a boss, the ante increases and so does the chip score you have to achieve. If you’ve not got a decent set of jokers or hands powered up by the third or fourth ante you’ll generally be on borrowed time before you come unstuck. Assuming you manage to prevail, once you reach the eight ante you’ll have to face a final boss of sorts. On the three successful runs we’ve had; yes three in total; we’ve faced one that flips your jokers to potentially screw the order in which they act and another that forces you to play a hand with one card in particular. It’s all very well done.

Due to the depiction of poker hands PEGI have shortsightedly rated this 18+ despite it launching with a 3+ rating. They cite prominent gambling imagery as the reason. To that we say, yet more proof that regulators don’t really have a clue. Would they have rated Balatro in such a way if the cards were abstractions as featured other cardbuilding roguelikes such as Slay The Spire? We doubt it.

The four suits could’ve been changed to peaches, apples, oranges and lemons for example. There’s so much more to Balatro in terms of how it expands beyond any other poker games mechanics. The joker modifiers are a massive departure from any other poker game for example, to the extent that we’d say they alone make PEGI’s stance all the more ridiculous. We didn’t hesitate to let our ten-year-old play anyway. When the likes of Fortnite have a PEGI 12 rating and limited release skins, we’d argue that is far more damaging.

Anyway, Balatro is fantastic. The interlocking mechanics are so well thought out that every time you play you’ll happen upon a new way to score big, Even when you crap out early as occasionally happens on the harder difficulties, you’ll feel compelled to have another go. It’s just so addictive and we fear for the productivity of those using their phones at work with the forthcoming iOS and Android versions.

Balatro is also the perfect game to while away an otherwise dull Teams meeting with your camera switched off. Especially since you can easily take a break from it to seem like you’re participating in the meeting.

If we’ve any negatives to mention, they are minimal and limited to the dopamine rush of unlocking new jokers and hence modifiers slowing to a trickle as you get into the later stages. Admittedly our fervour for unlocking a new joker has derailed a run on multiple occasions, but we’re finding it a bit easier to knock it on the head after a session than we initially were. That’s partly down to our realising that our accumulated lack of sleep is a factor too.

In conclusion, Balatro is excellent. Get on it. We could probably write another thousand words but we’ll spare you the verbosity. There’s so many excellent mechanics that we’ve not even touched on, more because we want you to have the fun in discovering them. Just as we’ll leave it to you to discover the  hundred and fifty distinct jokers as well as all the ancillary cards you’ll find otherwise.

10 Overall
+ More addictive than chocolate covered peanut butter pretzel crack rocks
+ So many avenues to both success and failure
+ Fantastic pixel art and chilled music
+ A variety of distinct mechanics that you’ll delight in discovering
- This will consume your every moment of spare time for the first week. Sleep is overrated
- That 18+ PEGI rating is a joke.
- Once the dopamine rush eases a bit you might find your play sessions become briefer. You almost feel guilt.
- There is nothing but Balatro. All hail Balatro
Balatro is a fantastic roguelike deckbuilder with a myriad number of ways to play and eventually beat it. Consume you it will. Resistance is futile. Embrace the sweet dopamine rush and sleep deprivation that will no doubt follow.

About Ian

Ian likes his games weird. He loves his Vita even if Sony don't anymore. He joined the PS4 party relatively late, but has been in since day one on PS5.

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