I had some big gaming plans for the holiday break this year: I was finally going to start a second playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2, build a new city in Farthest Frontier, and grab some friends to dive into Lethal Company.
I didn't do any of that. Instead, I just played poker-inspired deckbuilder Balatro. Every single day I sat on the couch with my Steam Deck and played it for at least a couple hours. And it wasn't even the full game, just the demo, which I still managed to sink 30 hours into. That meant I was pretty bummed when that awesome demo got pulled off Steam by its developer, LocalThunk, on January 1.
Today I'm firing my Steam Deck up again because that deckbuilder demo is suddenly back, and it's got a ton of new cards for you to try out—including nearly 40 brand new jokers. Even better, along with the return of the demo, LocalThunk's poker roguelike also has a launch date: Balatro will release on February 20. Here's the new trailer:
To quickly summarize the game, you begin with a standard deck of 52 cards and start making the best poker hands you can to earn enough chips to proceed to the next round. The chips you win can be spent on special cards: tarot cards that can enchant your deck, planet cards that can improve the multipliers of various hands, and jokers that can do all sorts of nonsense from increasing your score to cloning your cards to twisting and subverting the very rules of poker. Before long your deck may have twice as many hearts as you started with, or fifteen aces, or cards made of stone, steel, or glass.
I had a long chat the other day with LocalThunk and he was nice enough to show me some of the new jokers in the updated Balatro demo, and a few other features coming in February when the game fully launches.
You can already see that two of these, the Rocket and Mail jokers, will help your bank account though discards and accumulation over multiple rounds. Walkie Talkie will reward you with both extra chips and a multiplier whenever you play a 10 and a 4… and if you've played some Balatro you can surely imagine winding up with a deck overstuffed with 10s and 4s. Campfire is an interesting one, too, upping your mult each time you sell a card.
"If you know anything about banana lore..."
LocalThunk also showed me a Joker called Shortcut, which allows you to form straights while skipping a couple cards (like 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 would be a valid straight). That's perfect, because in the last demo I had a lot of luck building flush-centric decks, but not nearly as much success focusing on straights.
And then there's the new banana.
"One of the first jokers I ever made was the Gros Michel," LocalThunk told me. "Which is a real subspecies of banana that was really popular in, like, the '50s. And then it went extinct from a fungus called Panama disease."
Balatro fans know the valuable but volatile Gros Michel, a joker that gives a massive x15 mult but has a 1-in-4 chance of being destroyed every round. It'll be joined by a… well, a second banana.
"If you know anything about banana lore—which I don't know anyone that would—but after [the Gros Michel] went extinct, we replaced that banana with something called the Cavendish banana. It's a different subspecies," LocalThunk told me.
In Balatro, the Cavendish will give a x3 mult but only have a 1-in-10 chance of going rotten. An improvement (stability-wise, anyway) on the original.
Players can look forward to even more fun stuff in the 1.0 version when it launches in February, including 20 challenge decks that add all sorts of interesting rules and restrictions. One challenge LocalThunk showed me is called "The Omlette" in which players can only earn money with Egg Jokers.
That doesn't sound that hard: Egg Jokers increase in value by $3 each round so eventually they become incredibly valuable, and having five of them will rack up some serious dough pretty quickly. But all other forms of money-making are absent so you're gonna have to start selling your lovely eggs at some point to stay in the game. I foresee some tough strategic choices ahead. Another challenge deck I saw mimics a game of five-card draw, and you can imagine trying to put together a powerful hand without the eight cards you're dealt in standard play.
I also got to check out the new demo a day early, and I can say new Jokers aren't the only addition: there's a new kind of booster pack in the shop that you'll find super useful (except when it's not), and at least a couple new bosses (unless I somehow missed them in the first demo), two of which I already completely loathe. I'm not even joking.