LocalThunk's poker roguelike may just have stole the title of February best indie game.

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Anyone who has ever dabbled in cards, visited a casino, or simply placed a bet will know the warnings and advice the great Kenny Rogers shared in his timeless song, The Gambler. That song, which preached knowing when to hold your cards, fold them, and discard them holds true more than ever when it comes to LocalThunk's poker roguelike game, Balatro, a title that puts a unique and interesting spin on a card game that has thrived over generations.


The idea of Balatro isn't a whole lot different to regular poker. You have to use your dealt cards to make a variety of hands. The catch is that unlike regular poker where you are simply tasked with beating the other players sitting at your table, here you have to use your cards and the hands they make to amass points to defeat the dealer. The way this works is that every card counts as a point, with a 2 amounting to two points, an 8 equalling eight, and likewise face cards and aces equating to 10 and 11 points, respectively. Depending on the hands you form, a multiplier will be attached to the amount of points you garner, with a full house putting a four-times multiplier to your score for that round, for example. Then on top of this, there are joker cards that can massively impact how you score, and even tarot cards that serve as one-use consumables to help you line up a mega multiplier that can topple the dealer's required checkout points in one swift movement.

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It may sound simple in practice and for it's worth, assuming you have a basic understanding of poker and the various hands that can be scored, the core gameplay is very accessible and easy to pick up. The challenge and difficulty comes in how you use the roguelike elements to build a team of jokers and tarot cards that can help you score major points. One joker, as an example, could give you a 15-times multiplier, but to activate it on each hand you'll need to have consumed all of your card discards, which is a feature that allows you to throw up to five cards per discard back into the pack in return for random replacements. For this joker, the main threat is that once you are out of discards, you will have to make scoring hands each round with just the cards laid out in front of you, and that's very risky, as it could lead to low scoring hands like a pair or two.

Tarot cards work similarly, except they have the power to turn a card into another suit, or to make a scoring hand much more effective (i.e. three-of-a-kind gets an extra three-times multiplier attached to it for that hand). You can buy and acquire tarot cards and jokers at the store at the end of each encounter and use money you earn from overcoming the dealer and doing so in as few turns as possible. The store is essentially the place where you build out your scoring strategy for that run, as you'll need to gather jokers that apply to how you intend to play. This may not seem all too important to make a comboing joker collection to begin with, but as the rounds progress and the points you need to generate to defeat the dealer clock into the tens and hundreds of thousands, even millions, you will eventually feel the wrath of not developing a cohesive and connected play style.

With Balatro being a roguelike, it does face the issues with the random nature of the genre. You will have runs where it feels like the game is against you and that there is no hope of winning. This is on top of rounds where the cards just don't fall in favour of what you're in need of. You can use tarot cards to help offset this at times, but as Kenny Rogers says, sometimes you just need to walk away.

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To keep things interesting, Balatro offers a variety of different decks of cards that each provide slightly different bonuses. This could be one extra card per hand, or one extra discard to use per encounter. Then on top of this is the various difficulty options to select, and even a challenge mode to unlock if you manage to beat the game using a selection of different decks. The variety of jokers and tarot cards, and playable cards you can create by using tarot cards is also so vast that it constantly feels like Balatro is throwing a curveball at you in every single run. Each time you start feeling comfortable, the game will hit you with something new that forces you to answer it with a new strategy. Boss fights are some of the best examples of this, as during these more challenging encounters, you will face modifiers that drastically increase the difficulty of the game, such as cards being drawn face down, certain suits being made null and effectively useless, or even one that causes you to lose cash everytime you play a card, meaning you will find yourself with zero or negative funds next time you visit the shop.

Balatro really is a fantastic, ingenious, and genuinely unique game. It features the perfect blend of simplistic and accessible game mechanics matched up with broad, deep, and complex mathematical systems that will entertain and challenge seasoned card players. It's a brilliant example of how the roguelike formula can be used in practice, and I would absolutely implore anyone with a marginal interest in card games to check this title out because it will not disappoint you.

09 Gamereactor UK
9 / 10
Fantastic concept that is brilliantly realised. Easy to pick up and play. Loads of depth and ways to make the experience your own. Endlessly fun.
Roguelike elements can feel unbeatable at times.
overall score
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REVIEW. Written by Ben Lyons

LocalThunk's poker roguelike may just have stole the title of February best indie game.

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