As a kid growing up in the arcades in the early to mid 1990s, there were the classic games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and all sorts of 1980’s platformers which has a unique graphic style. There were other games that had a very similar style of graphic that fit in with the time. I never played those machines, but if I ever turn my garage into an arcade like I threaten to, they will also be there.

Video Poker Machines.

I think I may have put 20p in one and regretted it ever since. The game was over very quickly. Sure you could win a massive £2.40 by sheer chance, but by and large it was designed to part me and my money really quickly. That 20p could give me a good 20 minutes on Wonder Boy! Why would I try to play a game with a minuscule chance of an inside straight draw?! It’s daft.

However, the developer of Balatro – localthunk – seemingly were gripped by it, looking at the graphics, and simultaneously released my new obsession of a game.

Balatro is a Roguelike (a game style I get on with), deck building (a game style I am unfamiliar with), that sees you chase a high score to complete 24 stages of increasingly difficult poker hands, split into 8 worlds (or “Antes”). You start with a standard deck of cards, and you need to use the 8 cards you are dealt to play a number of hands in poker to score points. You get a certain number of discards, a certain number of hands, and a target to hit. Hit it and you go onto the next stage. Miss and it’s game over. And that’s it.

However, the beauty comes from the deck building element. After every stage you can add cards to the play. The majority of these are “jokers”, which give multiples or extra points for certain hands played. You can also introduce tarot cards as well – these cards can improve individual cards and be played at a certain time. “Planet” cards increase the value of individual scoring hands, and “Spectral” cards are risky cards that sees random cards removed and replaced with more cards of random value. The jokers can also be a bit left field. You can introduce credit cards, football cards, business cards and even broken cards to the deck. Like other collective cards – these cards can also be foil and holographic, which give more bonuses to you. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry – tooltips will explain all the cards, and there’s a handy onboarding system to the game. Even though it uses poker hands, you need only a passing knowledge of the game, as it departs the casino very quickly.

It’s not all plain sailing mind. The Antes are split into groups of 3, with a small blind, big blind and “Boss”, and they scale quickly from from 300 points for a Ante 1 small blind to over 5 figures in the later blinds. You can skip a blind for a reward but you lose playing that hand for rewards, and it can only be done one Ante at a time and never on the boss. Furthermore, bosses have debuffs. Some may have a huge score to beat, others may prevent cards from scoring, and others may make you play certain hands, or avoid certain hands.

And this is where the beauty of the game comes in. You’re building a run together to beat the game and you may have to change on the fly. You can make a hand like a flush stronger than a 4 of a kind, and flood your deck with a particular suit, but what happens when you cannot play diamonds? You can make playing 2 pairs more beneficial than playing full houses, but what happens when you need to play consecutive cards together? It all changes and requires you to think, to adapt, and to complete a run can be tough. At the time of writing, I’ve reached the end of Ante 7, but no further.

Honestly? I don’t think I’ve been addicted to a game like this for a long time. I’m talking being late to eating dinner. It’s a classic “one more run” game, a run that can take between 20 and 40 minutes to complete. So it doesn’t completely insist on your time, but you do find yourself playing run after run after run.  The closest thing I found to a gameplay loop to this was Hades, and the story did not grab me with that game. I still sunk over 100 hours into that game. I’m not saying this game has a story, but if it did I’d ignore it, as the gameplay is so addictive.

With great graphics inspired by early 90’s poker machines, and a unobtrusive soundtrack reminiscent of a late night pool hall, Balatro is a safe addiction. For a shade over a tenner, it’s well worth adding to your library.

Buy Balatro

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