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Balatro Review – Go All In On This Poker Roguelike

Balatro Steam Deck Menu Screen
A Near Perfect Card-Based Roguelike
Visuals 8
Sound 8
Gameplay 10
Value for Money 10

Balatro is a fully featured roguelike, based around scoring massive combos with poker hands and a wide variety of special cards.

It has great, retro-style visuals that won’t wow the graphics snobs, but they perfectly complement the accessible gameplay.

Though the game’s music doesn’t leave a lasting impression, it creates a relaxing vibe that works well with the evocative sound effects.

The gameplay is rich in features and depth, and overall, Balatro is an almost unbelievably addictive experience that you won’t be able to easily put down.

Imagine playing poker, but when you win a round, you get to visit a shop stocked with a random selection of cards, either face up or in booster packs, that you can buy with your winnings and add to your deck.

Also imagine that instead of playing against other people, you’re taking on ever increasing points targets (or ‘Blinds’), with reaching them being due to the scoring system being based around a clever combination of card values, multipliers and bonuses that can skyrocket to satisfyingly huge numbers.

Got that all in mind?

Then you’ve just imagined roguelike, deck building sensation Balatro.

Impressively, Balatro is the work of a single developer, and it’s one of the most immediately addictive and accessible games I’ve played in years.

  • Incredibly addictive, easy to learn gameplay.
  • Surprising level of depth, with lots of content to unlock.
  • No micro transactions or pay to win mechanics.
  • May appear overwhelming before you play.
  • Basic visuals and lack of theme may put off experienced roguelike players.
  • Very occasionally, a run can end before you get decent Jokers to use.

How Do You Play Balatro?

Balatro - In-Game Screenshot

If you’ve played Poker, you’re already going to have a head start with Balatro, which drops you straight into the action with a comprehensive, yet extremely easy to follow and accessible tutorial.

In each round, or Ante of Balatro, you’ll play cards from your hand to try and reach the points target of the Blind; starting with a Small Blind, then a Big Blind and finally the Boss Blind.

You can play up to five cards; making a Poker hand such as a Pair, Two Pair, Full House or 4 of a Kind, to give you numerous examples, earns you set points per hand type.

Yet these set points values can be levelled up using special cards purchased from the game’s shop, which appears between every round.

It’s in the shop and your growing collection of special cards that the magic truly happens in Balatro.

What Are Joker Cards In Balatro?

Balatro Joker Unlock Screen

You can take up to five Jokers with you into your Balatro games; though you start each run with none, you’ll quickly build them up, with each one offering a new, unique bonus and 150 of them to discover.

The bonuses the Jokers can offer may be as straightforward as giving you extra points or multipliers per face or Heart card, for example, but they can also be cards which encourage you to take more risks, such as not using any of your limited discards in order to earn cash or bonus points per hand.

Jokers aren’t the only extra type of card either.

What Are Tarot, Planet and Spectral Cards In Balatro?

Balatro Tarot Cards

Tarot cards are consumables that offer one off, special bonuses; you can keep up to two of these with you for use at any appropriate time.

There’s also Planet and Spectral cards; Planet cards can upgrade your hand types so that they’re worth more every time they’re played, and Spectral cards, can upgrade or transform existing cards to your deck.

These sometimes pop up in the Shop, but generally, you’ll find them in booster packs, or as bonuses for skipping Blinds.

Upgrading Or Finding Special Types of Standard Cards In Balatro

Upgraded Balatro Card

As mentioned above, there are ways to upgrade or discover (in booster packs) special types of ‘standard’ deck cards.

Those standard cards, which begins as a 52 card deck of numbered and face cards (2-10, then Jack, Queen, King and Aces), are scored according to their number value, though the face cards (Jack, Queen and King) are all worth 10 points each and Aces are high, being valued at 11.

These can be upgraded using the aforementioned Tarot or Spectral cards, which, along with Planets, are consumables that you can either use straight away, or at any point when they’re in your inventory; be warned, however, that you can only carry two consumables at a time, unless you’ve managed to upgrade the number of slots you have at your disposal.

It’s also worth noting that you’re also not stuck with a standard 52 card deck; you can buy these and other cards in booster packs that pop up in the shop, to truly customise the deck you’ll be taking into the next round.

Taking On A ‘Run’ In Balatro

Balatro - New Run Screen

Certain elements can be tweaked prior to starting a run, which consists of 8 Antes.

You’ll have different card back designs that bestow various conditions (or bonuses!) upon you during your next run; these unlock as you progress through the game, over the course of multiple runs.

When you reach a Boss Blind round, you’re hampered by any number of several penalties; for example, you could be forced to make do without a specific suit adding points to your hand score, or even have to deal with some cards being face down, forcing you to guess your way through to hitting that point target.

If you’re feeling confident, you’re able to skip a Small or Big Blind round to get powerful bonuses and edge nearer (or to) the Boss Blind; though this can be incredibly risky, it can pay off, and if you’re seeing your cards building points up way past the current Blind’s target, it’s a calculated risk that can work out brilliantly.

Though I’ve spoken about Jokers and the wild swings of outrageous fortune they can often bring to a run, Planet cards are perhaps my second favourite type of card in Balatro; these level up your hand types (so for example, Two Pair, Straight, Full House) so that each time you score one, its base points x mult score is increased.

Clever use of these can see a pair or three of a kind far outscoring the more traditionally powerful hands, so it pays to keep an eye on your current run’s progress, which is accessible in-game with a single button press, containing details on what hands you’ve played, and what each are worth before Joker bonuses are applied.

This Run Info menu also contains details on your current Ante’s progress, as well as the Vouchers you’ve redeemed, and their abilities, too.

Is Balatro Easy To Play For Beginners?

Balatro Screenshot 2

It is, though at first, you could be forgiven for thinking that it does feel as if there’s a little too much going on; visually, with lots of menu-type elements even in the shop, as well as with the various card types, bonuses and abilities.

If you’re new to card games, to Poker, roguelikes or any combination of those, checking out screenshots of Balatro can make it look a little daunting.

Yet it’s all clearly, cleanly and intuitively laid out, as well as being very clearly explained in the tutorial; the points x multiplier section is of particular note when your submitted hand is being scored, as an invaluable visual aid.

As you select each card from your hand and as previously mentioned, the points x mult (used as shorthand in the game’s menus for multiplier) display shows you the base score that you’ll get if you submit the currently selected cards, but of course this can build up based on the Joker cards you have available.

It can also increase thanks to the different levels that your hand types are at, with Planet cards able to upgrade these permanently during a single, 8-Ante run; it’s definitely worth bearing that in mind and checking the left hand side of the screen prior to submitting a hand!

As those multipliers accrue, often thanks to clever use of Jokers and upgrades, it’s endlessly thrilling to see the combos you’ve triggered and the numbers ping ever higher.

The Visuals Of Balatro

Balatro Screenshot 4

The pixel art aesthetic, with its CRT-style filter, gives Balatro the feel of an 80s Video Poker machine; no doubt that was entirely intentional on the part of the game’s developer, LocalThunk.

The gently swirling, subtly coloured pattern behind the play area, coupled with the chilled out soundtrack, definitely adds to this vibe too.

It’s a very understated game visually, though there’s some genuine invention in the clever art of Joker cards, the variety of Tarot cards, and other card types are nicely designed too, in a way that feels thematic to their type or bonus.

The menu colour scheme further adds more of that retro Video Poker flavour to proceedings too.

Is Balatro Fun To Play?

Balatro - Screenshot 3

I’m a big fan of roguelike deck building games, with some of my favourites being titles such as Slay the Spire and Monster Train (which you’ll find me recommending, among other games, here!).

I thought I’d miss the more thematic settings of those games when presented with Balatro’s more abstract design, but in actual fact, it never once bothered me that Balatro doesn’t actually have a story behind its roguelike runs.

Especially as it’s genuinely exciting to see a new card popping up in the shop; it’s always tempting to buy the rarer ones with your in-game winnings to add to your collection, even when they may not fit with the combos and general strategy of your current run’s deck.

The Jokers come in such a mind-boggling array of designs (and accompanying effects) that it takes a long while to see a decent chunk of what’s on offer, and you can check these out during (and between) games by accessing your card collection, even though you can’t carry them over between sessions.

Perhaps this is the long term CCG (collectable card game) player in me, but I get a genuine thrill from opening booster packs in Balatro too; there’s even a wide array of types and pack designs of these to find and add to your collection as you progress. It’s not quite the same as opening a pack of, say, Disney Lorcana cards to find an Enchanted card, but it definitely tickles the same part of the brain!

Balatro is about as addictive a card gaming experience as you can have. In terms of its mechanics, I found it straightforward, easy to pick up and yet hard to master.

Should you tire of the standard runs (or master them, if you’re some kind of card game prodigy!), there’s always the Challenge mode to take on too. This unlocks once you’ve won a run with at least 5 different decks, so you will have to really get some experience underway before you can tackle it!

Are There Any Issues With Balatro?

Balatro - Early Game Screenshot

Though a bad hand draw (and discards/redraws that fail to help) or even, sometimes, a poor selection of Jokers or bonus cards in the Shop, can hamper a run prematurely in a way that can feel ever so slightly unfair, if you can survive a few opening hands to get yourself Planet cards or Jokers that give you an advantage, you’re usually able to negate and work with even the poorest of hands.

Despite this potential flaw that I’ve identified, which feels a bit like nitpicking (especially as it tends to only rear its head in the first Ante; after that, generally any failure does feel like your own fault, rather than the game), Balatro is still a title that I am truly struggling to find much fault with, and it’s almost the very definition of a ‘one more go’ game.

You know the kind; given that you can make progress in a run (which you can save and resume at just about any time) in just about any chunk of time you have free, you’ll quite often find yourself sitting down to play for 10 minutes and, without realising, you’ll suddenly become aware that you’ve been playing for a few hours.

There’s an almost synaesthetic joy from the simple sounds and visuals as your submitted hand’s points are calculated in each round, and this just doesn’t seem to get old.

What Platforms Is Balatro Best Played On?

Balatro Steam Deck Photo

For the record, I played Balatro on the Steam Deck, and it works equally well using the touch screen as it does with the nicely implemented controls.

Those controls carry across to the console versions; though you can play Balatro on any current console (and computer, including Mac via Steam) platform, it’s perhaps best experienced in portable mode on Switch; as with the version you can play via the Steam Deck, having touch screen controls definitely adds to its intuitive gameplay and makes it feel even more tactile.

The Card Gamer Verdict

Balatro is an absolute triumph of substance over style, in a medium in which the reverse is often true.

As an indie title created by a solo developer, it’s a remarkable feat. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Balatro gracing any number of annual best game lists in December, either at, or close to, the top, despite how many months are left of this year and how many games will emerge between now and then.

Balatro truly is a masterfully designed game; it sets a new standard for card-based roguelikes and, given both its immediate commercial and critical success, is likely to remain unbeaten in the genre for many years to come.

Balatro is available now on PC, Mac, Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles.

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