Balatro Review – A Royal Flush

I can’t say I’m the biggest poker fan. I’ve played a round or two with friends before, but it’s not something I would ever pick to spend my free time with. So, even after I had heard plenty of praise for the poker deckbuilding roguelike Balatro from developers LocalThunk and publisher Playstack, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Until I played the demo myself during this Steam Next Fest and immediately realized this was something really special.

You start with a classic deck of cards. 52 cards made up of four different suits: spades, hearts, diamons, and clubs, each consisting of 13 cards: two to ten, jack, queen, king, and ace. And then you simply play the cards you draw, with the score based on poker hands. Pair, Flush, Full House, etc. There isn’t really much more to it. There are no enemies with life bars and attacks you might expect from a deckbuilding roguelike. Just some playing cards and a score you need to reah every round. But then there’s the shop you get access to between rounds, in which you use the money you gain by completing rounds, which offers four alternative card types to manipulate that score. And this is where this innocent little game of poker earns its complexity.

Two Pair always works (until it doesn’t anymore)

First there are the planet cards, which allow you to increase the multipliers and points you get from specific poker hands. Then there are the tarot cards, which allow you to manipulate playing cards: change their suit, give them extra stats and modifiers, destroy them, etc. Spectral cards essentially do the same as tarot cards, but with more powerful effects that affect a larger number of playing cards. And last but certainly not least, there are the 150 Jokers, by far the most important kind of cards to get from the shop if you want a successful run. They dictate your build and the kinds of plays you want to aim for because their effects will drastically increase your score as long as you play around them. And the more specific their condition, the better the score they give you.

Some of the simpler ones just give you some extra points if you play certain cards. “+30 points if you play a diamond card” sort of stuff. Some restrict what you can do for extra points, like giving you a set multiplier that decreases permanently every time you discard and redraw a card from your hand. Some scale depending on what kind of cards you buy, for example, increasing a multiplier permanently for every planet card you buy. It’s impossible to list every kind of effect you could get from a Joker, since, as I said before, there are 150 of them. But they are the most important part of every run, and seeing new ones in the shop and playing around with broken combos makes the game so unbelievably fun.

Here you can see the shop that currently has no good cards for me

So to buy Jokers, or planets, tarots, spectrals, and additional playing cards, you need gold, which you get from playing rounds. But interestingly, you don’t actually have to play every round the game throws at you. You can simply decide to skip one, and you get something for doing it as well. These are tags that give you little extras if you want them. So if skipping encounters gives you rewards, why would you even bother with them? Well, because the money to buy all of these cards is extremely important. So, Balatro introduces this small risk and reward system of skipping for tags or playing, potentially losing your run, but receiving the money you need to survive long-term.

Balatro keeps you playing run after run in two primary ways. First of all, it’s just addicting, and the moment one run ends, you want to start a new one. But then there’s also the incentive of unlocking new cards and starter decks. By completing certain tasks, you will unlock any number of new things to come across in your run, and the Jokers, in particular, are what’s exciting. Out of the 150 in the game, a vast number are locked at first, which you want to unlock, of course, because their effects only get crazier. But also, the new starter decks and their effects can impact your strategy for a run meaningfully. And there are additional difficulties and challenge runs as well, should you ever get too comfortable with your normal runs.

Ok but look at that combo multiplier though

Aesthetically, Balatro is pretty stripped-back and harkens back to an older era of video games. With its pixel art and CRT filters, it already feels like an old classic, which it hopefully will be considered to be one day. Same thing goes for the music, which doesn’t have much variety, as this is a very arcade-y roguelike game after all, but what’s there works to get you into the right mood with its synthy ambience tracks. The cards themselves look great as well. Nothing fancy; the tarot, planet, and playing cards all look exactly how you’d expect them to, just pixelated. And the spectral cards are also pretty simple; they have a really nice blue and golden shimmer that makes them feel ever so slightly special and otherworldly. The Jokers are the most interesting, though, as all 150 Jokers have different designs, playing with the classic Joker image in playful ways.

There isn’t too much to say about Balatro. It’s a deceptively simple game with few gameplay elements and no story or anything of the sort to speak of. But it just works so damn well. My biggest fear is that you leave this review the way I did, hearing all the praise for Balatro but then ignoring it for a long time anyway. Because while there are many much more flashy roguelike deckbuilders with additional mechanics, deeper systems, and more intricate synergies, the simple fact of the matter is that Balatro is my favorite deckbuilding roguelike I’ve ever played. It simply scratches a part of my brain that no other has managed so far. And I’ve played a lot of them.

Nairon reviewed Balatro on PC with a review code.

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