Balatro Review – This Ain’t Texas, Ain’t No Hold’Em

9.0 TOTAL SCORE

Balatro Review

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"Balatro is a truly groundbreaking card-based roguelike that takes an age-old game with a rigid formula and builds from the ground up to create a game that feels familiar, yet completely separate from its Poker roots. Balatro is an outstandingly deep and nuanced game with plenty of fun strategies to master and practically infinite replayability, and while it has some small issues, it's not far away from the perfect deck-builder experience."


Score 9
PROS
  • Incredibly deep systems and a clever concept
  • Outstanding replay value
  • A laundry list of viable tactics and strategies
CONS
  • Some minor issues with descriptions and logic
  • Glitchy visual effects can be offputting
  • Incremental progression may annoy more immediately skilled players

There are games out there that have an innate ability to suck you into an addictive and repetitive gameplay loop that could theoretically have you playing forever, and these are games that I am deeply fearful of, but also adore.

Stardew Valley’s ‘One more day’ loop had me up into the wee hours. Slay the Spire had me min-maxing runs to try and ascend the tower with ease, and now, the new kid on the block, Balatro, has arrived on the scene to ensure nothing I need to get done will happen for the foreseeable. 

Balatro may be simple in premise, offering a unique take on video poker where, if you know the basics of Poker, you’ll know what to do right from the word go. But despite this, the level of complexity and strategizing that comes with each new Joker, or Blind is incredible. 

It usually takes something special to see me commit time to a deck-builder like this because of their never-ending nature, and I can assure you, Balatro is something special. But if you want to know why, stick around; this is Indie Game Culture’s Balatro review, conducted on PS5. 

Know When To Hold’Em

There’s nowhere we could start other than with the core gameplay of this card-based roguelike. To boil it down, this is a game that takes the gameplay made-famous by dusty video poker machines found in dive bars everywhere and gives it a modern coat of paint to turn the age-old game of Poker into a roguelike deckbuilder like no other. 

From the offset, the game does assume some information. That means that you, the player, know the order of importance each Poker hand has and their general make-up.

Meaning that if you want to play this game, you’ll need to know the difference between a two-pair and a Royal Flush. However, if you need a refresher, the game has a list of the hands and examples to help you get up to speed. 

From there, it’s really about picking things up along the way, and the key to this game is playing the best hand, which initially will simply be the traditional order of hands within Poker, but as your run progresses, a good hand will be determined by the decisions you make, the items and cards you acquire, and the hands you level up along the way. 

Throughout the game, you’ll be able to acquire Jokers, which are Balatro’s version of Relics, offering unique abilities and multipliers that may turn a High Card hand into the best possible option. It was honestly a joy to play around with each new Joker, try to understand its synergy with the cards available, and work out meta strategies around each one. 

But that’s not all you need to juggle, as you’ll have the ability to earn money from each blind, and you’ll gain an extra dollar for every hand you don’t use, meaning there is an incentive to be as efficient as possible when racking up high scores.

Then, with this cash, you can buy Jokers, Planet cards that up the multiplier of certain hands, Tarot Cards that do a variety of one-time effects, and vouchers that offer top-tier permanent effects but are often very pricy, too. 

All of these considerations, from one hand or blind to the next, come together masterfully to create an incredibly addictive and deep card-based roguelike that gives you the freedom to experiment, take risks, and score big if you lean into a certain playstyle.

Going All In

The gradual improvement from one blind to the next feels wonderful, especially if you have a strategy that seems impenetrable, but this would all feel a little hollow if there wasn’t actually a massive hurdle to clear every now and again to prove that your strategy is solid.

So Balatro does this by adding bosses to their Poker Roguelike. Something that seems so out of left field, but actually feels as natural a fit as anything else in the game. 

These Bosses are essentially high-scoring blinds that mark the end of an ‘Ante.’ But what makes them different from a Big Blind is that there are special criteria for each boss round that are set up to nullify certain tactics.

So a boss may debuff all Diamond cards, or the boss may make all drawn cards appear facedown, forcing players to guess what’s there or discard these cards for a better view. 

These bosses force players to look at the round ahead and make a decision on whether to stick with their established tactic or pivot during the small and big blind to find a tactic that will work well within the boss’s criteria. 

My only criticism of this format is that, when you enter endless mode, the rate with which the score ramps up is a little too drastic to allow players to grow their methods as needed to succeed, but overall, it’s a revolutionary system that really forces players to do more than just stick with the cards they are dealt. 

Getting Decked Out

Now, you may be thinking, what if you come up with a strategy that theoretically allows you to play on endless mode forever, which I can only assume is possible because I never cracked that code.

Well, Balatro combats this route to potential boredom in the same way that Slay The Spire attacks this with new characters, and Ascension runs. 

Balatro: how to unlock and use the Plasma Deck - Video Games on Sports  Illustrated

Balatro has a progression system that allows you to unlock new decks and cards as you play. You may achieve a hidden goal, such as unlocking all the Planet Booster Packs, and you’ll get a new Joker that you be unlocked across all runs thereafter.

Through this progression system where better cards are unlocked through in-game mastery, there is an incremental rise in the potential score you can achieve. 

Then, to keep things fresh, the game also provides different deck types, each with their own unique starting stats. For example, the Blue Deck will offer one extra hand but one less discard, and the Red Deck will offer one extra discard but take away a potential hand.

These are the most basic Deck Types, but with more unlocks, you gain more unique deck types to try your hand at. 

Then, when you master each of these, you can start using challenge decks, which are the standard decks, but with handicaps added to make using them a lot more awkward and challenging. 

While I’m not a huge fan of keeping a starting player weak through hiding cards behind unlockable goals, as it would be nice to be rewarded for top-tier strategy right out of the gate, it has to be said that this is a very good system to allow new players to learn the ropes, learn a set of cards before adding more and potentially overwhelming the player, and it ensures even more replay value than the game already promised through tough challenges and deck variants. 

I can’t see myself mastering all of them, but the option to do so is a very welcome one, it has to be said. 

The CRT Effect

Moving onto the overall visuals of this game, which I both have a lot of praise for, and have my hangups with. 

On a positive note, I love how the game’s aesthetic is so tied to the old video poker machines that have inspired the game, from the way the cards pop up, flip, and interact on screen, to the jaunty elevator music that plays in the background as you play. 

You can tell immediately that the developers have worked hard to ensure that the UI feels super intuitive, and every action taken within the game feels satisfying. Whether that be opening a booster pack in the store, or levelling up a hand with a Planet Card. Everything feels incredibly satisfying, so even if you feel like the run isn’t going your way, it still feels enjoyable to live in hope that your luck will turn. 

This makes moment to moment gameplay very cathartic, but one criticism I do have is that the game has a retro, almost CRT-like filter to mimic the old Video Poker machines, but this can often by a little bit distracting.

From an aesthetic and thematic point of view, I get it, but when I’m backed into a corner and trying to figure out what hand will get me out of this hole, the intentionally glitchy screen and the filter that makes the screen look like an image loading on dial-up internet isn’t conducive to an environment where I can make smart decisions. 

Dealing With The Flop

While there may be no rivers or flops in this Poker game, there were some minor issues that irked me when playing this game, and while they were annoying, I assume that a patch will solve a lot of these issues pretty swiftly. 

I could make a list of all the minor issues, but here are just a few to give you a flavor. Firstly, the game has a number of descriptions that can lead to confusion when making a selection, and this could kill a run.

The best example of this is that a Tarot Card can ‘Turn the left card into the right card’, but when I followed the logic of this description, which suggests that the left card will then duplicate to what’s on the right, the opposite happened, which shows that there is a real lack of clarity here. 

Then another minor issue I encountered was that the game offered me a voucher that ensured that ‘when I opened a Planet Booster, there would always be a Planet representing my most used hand. But in reality, it really didn’t seem like the game followed through on this, and I can only assume that it was because the game couldn’t track what my most used hand was. 

This is just a sample of a few niggling problems that this game currently has to smooth over, but even with these minor problems, these never effected my overall enjoyment too much, even if they did kill a run or two. 

Closest Alternatives 

If you’re looking for something along the same lines as Balatro, then you might want to check out these card-building gems too: 

  • Slay The Spire
  • Inscryption
  • Gwent
  • Hearthstone
  • Dicey Dungeons
  • Across The Obelisk

The Verdict – 9/10

Balatro is a game that I expected to enjoy, as I’ve always been fond of a traditional card game, even if I do forget the rules constantly. However, I didn’t expect to fall in love as fast and as hard as I did with this Poked-based epic. 

Despite minor issues in terms of visuals, card descriptions, and progression, Balatro creates a system that builds on the strong foundations of the Video Poker format to offer a roguelike deck builder that I would happily play from noon to night. 

With so many decks to try, challenges to take on, and runs that are genuinely never the same, no matter how much you would love them to be sometimes, meaning you have a game that lives in the same infinite loop family with games like FTL; Faster Than Light and Slay The Spire, where value for money is guaranteed provided you love what the game has to offer, and boy, what it has to offer is as sweet as cherry pie. 

I’m not quite at the standard where I can walk around with one of those gold bracelets and blacked-out shades, but I assure you, I’ll be working on my Poker Face and playing this game for many years to come! 

Pros

  • Incredibly deep systems and a clever concept
  • Outstanding replay value 
  • A laundry list of viable tactics and strategies

Cons

  • Some minor issues with descriptions and logic
  • Glitchy visual effects can be offputting
  • Incremental progression may annoy more immediately skilled players

Play Log

Callum played Balatro for 18 hours before conducting this review, and within this time, he racked up scores within the millions, unlocked all the deck variants, and even completed a challenge or two. But he knows that this is only the beginning, as this game is pretty much a nailed-on addiction at this stage. 

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