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Review: Balatro (Switch) – Devilishly Compelling Cardplay, And A Clear GOTY Contender

Games like don’t come around very often. It’s the sort of experience that quickly burrows its way into your mind until you can think of little else, so you tell your friends about it, and then they tell their friends about it. Eventually, through the sheer power of word of mouth, a game that has seemingly popped up from nowhere is now one of the clear frontrunners for Game of the Year. We’re not even exaggerating, by the way; it really is that good. It’s destined to sit alongside the likes of , , and as one of, if not the defining example of its respective genre, and frankly, we’re kicking ourselves that we didn’t catch wind of it sooner.

If words like ‘roguelike’ and ‘deckbuilder’ fill you with dread, we understand, but just bear with us on this. Balatro is a roguelike deckbuilder that’s built around the general concept of poker. The idea is that you need to utilise classic poker hands to build up your chips and beat the target score for each round (or, officially, ‘blind’). It sounds simple, and it genuinely is — you don’t even need any prior knowledge of poker hands because a quick tap of the ‘–’ button will bring up a handy list of every possible combination — but the challenge comes when the target chip number starts increasing.

Each card and each poker hand comes with its own set score and multiplier: Ace is worth 11; picture cards are 10; all others are face value. The type of hand you play is then worth a certain number of multipliers: a three-of-a-kind multiplies your score by three, while a full house multiplies by four. Easy-peasy. So what happens when have a target score of, say, 10,000? Surely cards worth only single digits can’t reach that score. Well, that’s where the Jokers come into it.

There are dozens upon dozens of Joker cards that become randomly available throughout your runs in Balatro, and you can purchase one or more in between rounds with your winning money. At first, you can only carry up to five at a time, but as you get deeper into the game, you can unlock additional slots as required. Each Joker has a specific effect, so layering these on top of one another is one of the key ways you can significantly boost your score. So for example, one Joker might apply a multiplier to specific suits, while another could apply a multiplier to hands containing three cards or less.

What this means is that, at least early on, the types of Joker cards available in your deck will significantly influence the type of hands you choose to play. Sure, it might be tempting to whack a full house down containing three Aces and two Kings, but if you’ve got the Joker that favours three cards or less, simply putting down the trio of Aces will yield a far greater score. Of course, the more time you spend with Balatro, the stronger your runs will get; it won’t be long until the Joker multipliers start ramping your score into the millions and possibly even billions. It’s seriously addictive stuff once it gets its claws into you.

But the Jokers aren’t the only cards that can influence your score. You’ve also got Tarot cards, Planet cards, and Spectral cards. Good grief.

Each Planet card simply levels up a specific poker hand, increasing its effectiveness. The Tarot Cards are a little more involving: these can essentially change the type of cards in your deck. So for example, you can alter a card’s suit, change it into a lucky card, a stone card, a gold card, and more. It sounds bonkers, but the game does a great job of indicating how a specific change can potentially affect your score going forward. Finally, the Spectral Cards offer more benefits, but often with an added cost. For example, you can significantly boost the effectiveness of one Joker card, but then all your others will be destroyed.

The true beauty of Balatro is that, however complex all the individual mechanics might sound from our description, it really is one of the most accessible and instantly gratifying games we’ve ever experienced. We defy anybody with even the most basic understanding of playing cards to dive in and not get hooked within the first half hour. Everything has been meticulously designed to provide consistent hits of dopamine, and it’s frankly one of the strongest examples of to date; a perfect remedy for those who might normally shy away from that type of game.

This is only enhanced by the ability to play the game on Switch via handheld mode. It’s still great playing on a TV, sure, but Balatro was made to be picked up and played in short bursts, and handheld mode is perfect for this. You’ve also got three methods of input: you can use the right analogue stick as a cursor, the D-pad to snap between cards and options, or the touchscreen in its entirety. All three are viable, but we found that using the D-pad was the best method for us; we don’t want to get that screen all grubby, after all.

In terms of visuals, Balatro strikes a wonderful balance of style and function. The basic layout is easy to grasp, with your Joker cards laid out at the top, Tarot/Planet cards to the right, and your selection of playing cards toward the bottom of the screen. All other information, including score, target, and the number of hands/discards you have remaining is displayed on the left. This is then augmented with gorgeous artistic flair, including a psychedelic, colour-changing background, an optional CRT filter, wacky designs for the Jokers, and bursts of numbers that flash up in rapid succession as you land a strong poker hand. The music too, while certainly simplistic, is a calming, catchy loop that is certain to become a stubborn earworm long after you put the game down.


Balatro is a roguelike for gamers who don’t like roguelikes… and then everybody else on top of that. It utterly nails what it sets out to do, providing an instantly accessible, satisfying, and addictive gameplay loop that anybody can grasp. It’s an immensely enjoyable experience from the start, but as you get deeper in, there’s really nothing else quite like it. We suspect we’ll be hearing a lot about Balatro when conversations steer towards Game of the Year, because this is a clear and obvious frontrunner. Utterly sublime.