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Balatro Review (PS5) – A Royal Flush Of A Roguelike

Balatro Review (PS5) – A poker-based roguelike, surely not? When I heard about this quirky little title, I was flummoxed about how it would work and completely intrigued by the prospect.

Roguelikes and card games are truly embedded in my wheelhouse, so this one should be a hoot! Coming from the developer LocalThunk and the publisher PlayStack, welcome to Balatro!

Balatro Review (PS5) – A Royal Flush Of A Rougelike

A Sense Of Familiarity

In a way, Balatro reminds me of the recent hit Inscryption. It’s weird but absurdly wonderful. Both of these games do something different and I am so glad that a small part of the industry is still happy making new and exciting things.

Balatro is a very trimmed-down roguelike with a very basic yet quaint presentation and despite me wanting to, at times, hurl my PlayStation out the window (not the games fault but my own), I adored it.

You start the game with a standard 52-card deck, you know, the one we all know and love. You are then presented with your first three matches, aptly named, for a game about Poker, the small, large and boss blinds.

In Poker terms, blinds are the mandatory bets that are made before the hand starts. In Balatro though, it’s just the names of the three matches per round, or ‘Ante’ that get everly increasingly difficult.

A Small Learning Curve

All you have to do in these matches is beat a set score, sounds easy? Well, it frickin’ is not! It took me about ten hours to beat the game the first time and countless games to ‘understand’ the mechanics, but it was a great journey. How do you score then? And what’s so great about this game?

Well, it’s a roguelike, so you can manipulate and bend the rules of Poker to your every whim. Buying upgrades in shops, removing and upgrading cards and an all manner of wholesome roguelike shenanigans.

In each match, you have a set number of hands and discards to reach your score goal. Discards allow you to shed cards from your hand and replace them with others and the number of hands is how many hands you can submit to score points. The hands you submit are the standard Poker hands you would expect.

From highest to lowest; Straight Flush, four of a kind, full house, flush, straight, three of a kind, two pair, pair and high card. Not only that, there are a few secret hands too, that I will not spoil, even though they are very easy to work out if you think about it.

Hands, Chips And Sweet, Sweet Multipliers

Each hand has a base number of ‘chips’ that it is worth, chips are just your score really but as with most of the terms in this game, they have to be poker-themed.

They also have a multiplier depending on which hand you play. What really makes this game though and the addictive DNA of Balatro is how you build these scores to get and I am being honest here, unbelievable scores. When I beat the game I was able to beat the final boss in one hand, scoring about 100,000 in one go. I thought this was awesome, it felt great.

That was until I watched some youtube and checked the trophies. There is a trophy for betting a billion-point hand and I have seen youtubers getting single-hand score in the hundreds of trillions, I know, bonkers right?

So, how do you achieve such a fantastical feat? You use shops, upgrades and all the standard gubbins. This is where the roguelike elements creep into Balatro and boy are they so, so sweet.

After beating each match you are rewarded with cash, depending on various factors (the base of which is how many hands it takes you to win) and you can spend this hard-earned cash in the shop. These shops and how you build your deck are the core of Balatro.

There are so many options, so many ways to win and at first it’s quite overwhelming. Even for a roguelike fanatic like me.

A Tapestry Of Possibilities

Weaving your way through each match, building your deck correctly and trying to find broken combos at each shop is the lifeblood of this game. There are vouchers to buy, you can add cards to your deck and there are an all manner of uncanny things to buy. How you use these theses mechanics against the game and learning how to do so is what makes this quirky little title so bloody moreish.

I do not have the space in this review to explain it all but manipulating what cards you can draw, upgrading your poker hands and buying Jokers are the main parts of most strategies.

Jokers, of which you can have five by default are cards that add whacky and wonderful effects to your game. Things like granting extra cash, boosting multipliers for certain combos at the most simple but at their most complex have them copy each other and re-triggering effects, you really can, with the right combo, create some mind-bending effects.

Especially when these things trigger in differing orders depending on what order you set your jokers in.

I adore how Balatro is so simple yet so very complex at the same time. Anyone can select a card and anyone can visit a shop. Understanding the framework of this game and how all these systems work together though takes a bit of time but the rewards are immense.

Every game is different, every match is a different puzzle to solve and this game has a purity to it like no other. No pixel wasted, no bloat, no unnecessary systems. Everything is needed and trimmed to perfection.

Pixelated Purity

On the presentation point, Balatro is again, simple and unique. It’s just pixel art of cards. However, there is a very nuanced feel and look to it that I find very fitting. There is a soft old-school CRT filter over the whole thing that flickers and distorts as you play. It’s like you’re paying on a monitor from the late 80’s.

Also, the animation style, sound work and how the hands score creates a very addictive sensation in your mind. When you score a hand as each card is calculated and the multiplier build, the beeps get higher and if you get high enough the score sets on fire, which also gets bigger as the score increases. It’s like a little shot of endorphins every hand and its beautiful.

It’s small things like these that set Balatro aside. As with the gameplay, it’s not flashy, it’s not bombastic but it’s very well done and has a personality all of its own. The whole package of Balatro is superb. As I said above, I am so happy we still have games like this. It’s unique, I rarely have to watch videos on YouTube and ‘learn’ how to play a game but I loved doing so.

It was like learning a new language. This is not another cut-and-paste title that there are hundreds of and Balatro could be the sleeper hit of 2024. I just fear most people will pass by it and that pains me deeply.

A Sleeper Hit That Will Fly Under Most Radars

As you can tell I adore this little game. It’s so rare to find something so unique and left-field. Balatro is so pure and so lovingly crafted that I cannot find a single flaw with it. It’s a shame that we live in a world where most people will see screenshots of this and maybe watch a video of it and immediately dismiss it.

Balatro is a masterclass in videogame design and presentation and I will be honest, I cannot see a game that I will enjoy more this year. I will play Balatro for a long while into the future and that alone deserves a standing ovation. Right, time to work on one of those trillion-point hands, eventually.

Balatro is now available for PS5 and PS4.
Review code kindly provided by the publisher.



The Final Word

It will be very difficult to find a game I have enjoyed exploring more than Balatro this year. Learning its mechanics were like learning a new language and it was all-encompassing. Balatro should be the design template going forward for many designers, it contains 0% fat and is trimmed to perfection. Not a pixel or mechanic is wasted in this immensely addictive roguelike. Bravo to all involved.