Larks & Recs: Hazbin Hotel and Balatro

Two female characters, one smiling and another frowning, in Hazbin Hotel
Screenshot/Prime Video

When this feature first started, someone decided to call it What’s the Buzz, but we eventually changed the name for two reasons. One is that it kept making a couple of us sing the song from Jesus Christ Superstar in our heads. That’s not terrible—and, indeed, Easter weekend might be a great time to revisit the 1973 film—but it wasn’t really an intentional reference. The other reason was to open this space a bit beyond recommendations. Sometimes, we want to go on a little lark, perhaps taking up the recommendation made by someone else, or sharing some thoughts on something a little outside of our normal wheelhouse.

This week, Cat Smith checks out Hazbin Hotel, while Hawk Ripjaw recommends Balatro.

Hazbin Hotel

Cat: I decided to watch Hazbin Hotel because people kept telling me it was Owl House methadone, and I miss The Owl House a lot.

It really isn’t. It’s fun and all, but it is a VERY different vibe. And maybe that’s where I went wrong with it. Maybe if I had gone in with different expectations, I would have felt differently about it…no, probably not.

It’s not like it didn’t have things I liked about it. It’s got as much Broadway talent as The Gilded Age (Alex Brightman is living his best life doing his Beetlejuice voice amped up to eleven, and I will happily listen to Keith David read the phone book), and I enjoyed a couple of the songs. Here’s my problem, though.

So, it’s a show about Hell. Which I love. I am a sucker for faux Biblical stuff. But this is…the word I keep finding myself using is “exhausting.” It really feels like most of the time it’s busy going LOOK HOW EDGY WE ARE!! It’s like Moulin Rouge and The Prophecy had a child who took peyote and threw up a Ren and Stimpy cartoon. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that’s what you’re into, but.

A character with a head like a TV set in Hazbin Hotel
Screenshot/Prime Video

Here’s my other thing. Lord knows I am not a linguistic prude (go read any of my 400 articles on Deadwood if you need evidence of that—IRL I have the mouth of a very articulate sailor). It’s not like it’s inappropriate for a show about Hell…but for some reason, I find excessive profanity in dialogue tiresome. It’s not like it offends me or anything…I just find profanity like cumin, or one of those other spicy spices. The right amount adds zing to your dish and makes it taste great. Too much, and your dish doesn’t taste like anything anymore, and all you experience is your mouth burning, and that’s boring to me. Honestly, it made it hard to follow the plot, because everything everyone was saying was one big string of NSFW words…and I could have even lived with that, except that EVERYONE spoke that way. Like, even when we got a sequence in Heaven (and don’t get me wrong, the part of me that loves The Boys kind of likes the idea of angels as degenerate scumbags…but there needs to be SOME difference between the angels and the demons), everyone spoke the same way.

The color palette wasn’t doing it for me either. I was never into Adult Swim, and it is very that. I didn’t find enough variety in the animation, the dialogue, and even the voice talent (and don’t get me wrong, these are incredibly talented people doing a great job). The increasing lack of vocal diversity in the world is everywhere, and this was no exception. That said, I am obsessed with the one song they let Keith David sing, so there’s that. But if you asked me to distinguish any of the other songs from each other right now, I couldn’t do it.

So anyway—I know a lot of people who love Hazbin Hotel. I would have liked to have been one of them. What’s funny is, if this had come my way when I was 23, I probably would have been a HUGE fan. It’s a weird feeling…having something speak to those parts of you that you worked really hard to outgrow because they were self-destructive and unhealthy.


Hawk: I’m no gambler, so it’s a damn good thing that Balatro doesn’t involve any actual expenditure beyond the modest $14.99 initial cost because I am hopelessly addicted.

Balatro is a poker-themed deck-building roguelike, which is a lot to swallow, so let me walk you through it: each round, you draw a hand, and attempt to play a poker hand using it. Each card scores a number of chips, pretty standard poker fare. Once you score enough chips to pass the round, you visit a store, in which you can open booster packs. These booster packs contain additional cards to add to your deck. See where this is going? Add another Jack of Spades, and you’ve got an easier path to a good hand. Your deck is bigger and you’ve got an illegal number of Jacks of Spades, but creating hands that wouldn’t be possible in traditional poker is a big part of the fun. You can discard cards from your hand if you don’t have a good play, but you have limited discards and only a few hands per round to win enough chips to advance, so there is a high level of strategy involved here.

But where Balatro really sings is with the Joker, Tarot, and Planet cards. Joker cards add a unique modifier to your deck, such as triggering the first card played a second time, a 4x multiplier to the hand you’ve played, and many more. You can only hold five Joker cards at a time, so some tough decisions have to be made. Tarot cards transform your existing cards into different suits or give specific cards additional abilities. Planet cards level up poker hand types, increasing the modifier or chip payout.

The visual design of Balatro is incredibly satisfying, as when you play a hand, the valid cards pop up and get a numerical score appearing above them, and it keeps getting better with additional Joker modifiers adding the multipliers, and watching the number of chips increase with a nice, robust screen shake, and the chip multiplier even catching on fire if it gets high enough. It scratches that “Number Go Up” itch that the best roguelikes and RPGs absolutely nail, and it’s never not exciting to see the right combination of cards and modifiers result in a massive chip payout.

If there’s one mark I can give against Balatro, it’s what comes with the territory of any roguelike: sometimes, you’re just going to get screwed over by the RNG and receive a bad run, where you’ll get a couple of rounds in and there’s just no viable path to victory. Luckily, it’s very quick to get back into a new run, and if you feel like you’ve made a misstep in a current run, you can copy the seed of that run and paste it into a new run to attempt the exact same run again. I had a run where I got a fantastic Joker that gave me a 4x multiplier per Spade card played, plus an additional 10x multiplier because that Joker was a holographic card, so I spent some good time re-attempting that same run, proceeding to find another Joker that gave a multiplier for Club suits and a Tarot card that transformed multiple cards into Spades, so I was making plays that were paying out thousands of chips per hand.

I put in at least one session of Balatro every couple of days, and I’ve got a sizeable handful of seeds for rounds that I want to revisit. I keep discovering new Joker cards and deck types that add even more modifiers for a session, and while it’s a lot to keep track of, the game’s elegant design makes it easy to understand, and hard to put down.

Written by TV Obsessive

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