Balatro is a deck-building roguelite where you must play poker hands and earn chips to defeat enemy blinds. Enhance your deck of playing cards, buy Jokers to modify each hand you play, and discover new and wild synergies to win!
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The year has barely started, and it seems like my GOTY has already been decided - Balatro is an excellent game that sucked me in for 40 odd hours, and I have blasted through all I cared to complete in about half a week since the release.
Balatro is a loosely poker-based roguelite with the same basic structure as Luck be a Landlord - every round you have a target score you need to hit by assembling poker hands from the cards you get from your deck, and you build synergies between rounds to hit higher scores as they scale up. The gameplay loop is extremely addicting and you can easily lose yourself for hours playing run after another.
The game has nailed basically everything there is to playing a game like this: the runs are pretty short and you can leave them whenever without losing progress, rounds don't drag out because you're encouraged to hit the score in as few hands as possible, the descriptions are consistent and succinct, the UI is clear and intuitive (my favourite thing about it is that you can see your deck composition just by howering over it) and there aren't any tiny annoyances that wouldn't matter by themselves but build fatigue over the dozens of runs.
On top of that, the game looks great and sounds great. The one song the game has is completely stuck in my head, and I love the special edition card effects - they look exactly how I remember collectible cards looking.
There are some things that could've been done better, but nothing too bad and nothing that can't be improved by updates or expansions.
The first thing is common for roguelites: the playable decks you unlock are, for the most part, very similar to one another and there are maybe 3 or 4 decks that actually play differently. I wish there were more gimmicky decks like Plasma or Anaglyph, or maybe a way to assemble your own deck, or a deck that starts you with 2 random eternal jokers.
The second is I feel there isn't enough synergies for the types of combos except flush. It's much harder to build a run around straights, or x-of-a-kind, or full houses than it is to build a flush run. There are more jokers that implicitly or explicitly synergise with playing a full hand of the same suit, and there are many more tools to turn cards into the same suit than there are tools to manipulate cards' rank.
The third is the way challenges get unlocked. You only have 5 unfinished challenges available at any time, and you unlock one more every time you finish one. This leads to a situation where you finish all the fun ones that are available, and are left with 5 unfun ones (which is fine! challenge is literally in the name) that are hiding who knows what behind them. I will say that the fun ones are frontloaded and the further you go, the more anti-fun they get, but you can't really know what's there until you've unlocked them.
Like I said, this is all stuff that could be added with updates or DLC. It doesn't detract from the core of the game at all, and it more or less boils down to "I wish there was more of it". Maybe there will be more, but it is already an excellent game.
I highly recommend Balatro to anyone who likes roguelites and especially the synergy building aspect of the genre.
"Do you like this game or is it just something to do with your free time?" - My Girlfriend
I've won about 8 different times now over the course of about 25 hours with a few different starter decks. For a roguelike thats not too often but that on its own is not a knock. People will play Nethack for 100 hours without a single win. It's about what you do in a game that matters. The decision making and that overall goal. In a game like Astrea or Nethack these goals are discreet yet ambitious, killing a big heart after going through complicated dice or ascending after dealing with a litany of confusing combat engagements.
Balatro is about taking a 52 card poker deck and using the hands you're given to make points off a sheet to eventually win. When you do win the celebration is mild and unsatifying and it asks you if you want to play endless mode immediately. In one of the early dev builds there was a simple story where the joker that sets the game up and jeers you in the meantime, setting up some fairly simple motivational stakes to beat the asshole joker. That was removed from the finished build, leaving no core motivation to play besides winning for its own sake.
The game is a simple maths strategy game, after you beat a round you are entered into a shop with an option to choose between 2 different cards to buy in the shop and a few 'booster packs' below. All the sounds are satisfying but this is where the game runs into its main issue. The main cards, the jokers, only have 2 options to buy between and especially as you unlock more of the pool that pool becomes flooded with useless stuff. Tarot cards you cant use, planet cards that dont help, jokers with no multipliers, etc. This leads to the fundamental problem of the game: None of the runs feel special unless you have really curated your deck somehow or you have 'won' that particular round. You're just walking into a shop hoping it feeds you what you want (usually early on its mult jokers). If you can get out of the early game then you have plenty of time to decide in the midgame but often, you wont. I've often lost before the end of the first 'boss blind' or in other words the third 'fight'. You only have 2 options, buy from shop or skip a blind. Even if you skip a blind you have to play the next round which expects more points so it isnt usually reccomended. So the meta usually ends up being playing rounds and hoping the shop has useful things. There's a 5$ reroll button but usually it only makes sense to use that when you're desperate. Leaving you with only making a few choices until the mid to end game.
So eventually the game turns into an issue of restarting for a good opener, whether or not you restart you play the opener through. Because the combat engagements are so abstracted there's no feeling like in an ascii roguelike that an early failure is amusing in its own right. You don't fall off a horse and instantly die, or get consumed by a random slime because you forgot to equip your weapon, you just lose to a poker table screen. In my view the input variance was just made too high with a lack of stakes and a fairly simple opening meta to follow (play the first three rounds clean unless you see a multiplier joker).
Finally, the metaprogression unlocks just end up sullying the shop pool, so the game on a base level gets more difficult to play than you started only as a result of input varience increasing. In a world where games like Astrea, Wildfrost, Desktop Dungeons, Griftlands, and Cobalt Core exists, Balatro ends up feeling too simple and yet too high varience to be reccomendable. It's a time sink roguelike, something to toy around with in the background in hopes of a next win. The early game is very satisfying to play but as the shop pool clogs up and the hedonic treadmill hits in you can't help but think you should probably be doing something else. This focus on refining difficulty to this point along with high varience reminds me of how Binding of Isaac played out. At first it was narratively focused, a story of a traumatized kid running through the basement in tears, playing pretend. Eventually that game was turned into an RNG fiesta and made so difficult and took away most of the scaling options through variance that even for most players the ability to win became way too difficult. I feel like Balatro is learning the wrong lessons from late Isaac in this sense. Not every player needs a perfect narrative to anchor their play experience, but the difficulty spike with a lack of early game options just turns the whole game into a grinding treadmill. Mind you this is a criticism coming from somebody who has some of the rarest achievements in the game at the moment, including finding a legendary Joker, so I have actually played the game I'm not just trying to be difficult for no reason.
It's a shame because I was looking forward to balatro but I think while it will be a flash in the pan for a while it won't ultimately stand up to the test of time. Unlike something like Vampire Survivors its not egregious, because runs arent strictly stuck to a time limit you have to sit through, nor is it an eye sore, nor is it entirely without decision making. Yet, the difficulty being as high as it is, without any narrative amusement for failed runs, means that it becomes mind numbing repetition to play. You end up playing just to win to unlock the next meta progression unlock (which can all be unlocked from the menu anyway if you don't care about achievements thus nullifying any goal other than 'win'). The appeal of the game only lasts for the first dozen unlocks and first win and becomes more or less busywork after that point. I will probably get 100% but I'll remember my experiences with it in a year far less fondly than Colbalt Core and I think on some level a game you can feel happy reminiscing about matters a lot more.