Balatro Hones the Art of Making Numbers Go Up

Games Features balatro
Balatro Hones the Art of Making Numbers Go Up

There is a simple fact at the core of many videogames: it feels very good when the numbers go up. In RPGs, it can come from watching stats climb or tactically aligning type advantages and buffs to land a decisive blow that leads to a long sequence of red numerals popping out of a felled foe. With competitive endeavors, it coincides with high scores on leaderboards and watching your ELO climb with continued practice. And perhaps the most blatant examples come from idle games like Cookie Clicker, whose popularity and exploitation of this brand of dopamine hit seem to loop back around and poke fun at this exercise, except of course, when they charge you for the pleasure.

Balatro, a roguelike deckbuilder that came out last week and is quickly climbing the charts on Steam and elsewhere, is another game about watching numbers go up. It’s based on poker. Or, more specifically, it’s about engineering a deck that blasts apart the rules of poker so completely that all that’s left is a smoldering pile of playing cards. As for the rules, you put together hands to score points (in this case, chips) in order to clear the requirement for that level. Initially, chips are given in proportion to standard hand strength in poker, so a two pair will score more than a pair, and so on. You have a certain number of hands you can play (four by default) to try to clear this threshold, and can discard up to five cards a set amount of times (three by default) to draw new ones.

However, where things get interesting is that in between each level, there’s a store that allows you to customize your deck, allowing you to tinker with the flow of the game bit by bit until you’ve (hopefully) crafted an underhanded system for ballooning your score. As for the trajectory of a run, at first, you are just playing normal hands of poker, attempting to beat a target (300 chips) that can be reached through a few weaker hands, such as two pairs. But as you progress round by round, ante by ante, that target, which looms in the top right corner, grows, forcing you to find ways to stall your inevitable defeat as long as possible (you can “win” by lasting through eight antes, but if you reach this goal, you can keep things going in an endless run where exponentially growing targets will eventually be your downfall).

Much of the joy here comes from just how much agency you’re given within the confines of this game of chance, both in putting your deck together and playing it. In the shop, you can buy Jokers cards that sit at the top of the board without needing to be drawn and provide passive buffs. These are the key for breaking things wide open, as some come with ways to add to or multiply your score, and the only real limiting factor is that you can only have five at a time (by default anyway, but as alluded to, this is a game all about breaking the rules). You can also level up the base value of hands, get vouchers that offer permanent boons, switch out and level up your playing cards, and more.

Altogether, there is a free-form quality to how you put together your setup, and like any great deckbuilder, these runs live or die by the sum of many small but meaningful decisions, making it deeply rewarding when everything comes together in a virtuous cycle of chip generation. Similarly, when it comes to playing your hands, choices add up, such as how to use your discards and when to score. You’re also given enough data to make informed decisions, like what cards are left in your deck or what hands you’ve been using most throughout the run, which turns these runs into a series of informed decisions instead of random guesses.

However, where Balatro becomes truly hypnotic is in its presentation of this interdimensional poker table. Everything is in constant, trippy motion, from the shifting colors of its backdrop to the UI that ever so slightly wiggles. In the shop, cards gently sway as if suspended by some unknown force, and booster packs glimmer with a picturesque sheen that I’m sure Wizards of the Coast wishes they could replicate. CRT scan lines and digital noise add to its vaguely retro aesthetics, granting the vibe you’re playing some forgotten cartridge or floppy disk that was left rotting in a used games store. And underneath it all is the looping main theme, more or less a single track, but one that’s pure ear candy. It’s acid rock born from green baize, the woozy whammy of electric guitar and sharp keyboard strokes so perfectly encapsulating and accentuating the game’s underlying psychedelic vibe that it belongs in the looping elevator music hall of fame alongside the Wii Shop Channel track. And then there’s what happens when you score.

As you play your hand, you watch as each individual card is tallied: base chips are added with a satisfying click, followed by an ascending ring for the multipliers, each consecutive effect added by a Joker slightly increasing the pitch and speed of the process as its builds into a breakneck, euphoric crescendo. As the pace increases, the score calculation grows larger, numbers reverberating with every beat as digits catch fire and your brain lights up with it. By the end of particularly massive payouts, it’s all passing in a blur, and your final chip tally clinks as if you won a jackpot. These big score moments are comparable to something like when “Ode to Joy” rings out in Peggle, carrying such a powerful effect that you’ll be chasing the same harmonious thrill as soon as a run ends.

Plenty of games are about making numbers go up, but Balatro’s magic is in how it fine-tunes every nuance of this process. Runs are long enough to create compounding decisions but short enough to let you see the fruits of your digit scaling in a single sitting. You’re given a great deal of control over the path of a run, making victories feel deeply earned, but there’s more than a dash of randomness to evoke thrills when things line up. And perhaps most notably, compared to many other deckbuilders where vibe and game feel are somewhat of an afterthought, here the chorus of accelerating victory chirps during scoring lands with such a wave of gratification that it’s the type of gamified rush that would be dangerous in the wrong context.

Thankfully, compared to many big-budget games, which increasingly come across like thinly veiled digital casinos due to loot boxes, there’s no fine print to enjoying Balatro past its one-time 15-dollar entry fee (besides your time). The main risk that comes with losing is the terrible little clown that taunts you on the Game Over screen. Moreover, getting a truly meaty score is largely optional, as you only need about 180,000 chips to win the final ante. But when a deep run culminates in the thrill of a combo, the digits being pushed into the millions as numbers light up in concert with a feverish procession of clicking chips, it’s easy to forget that’s the case.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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