With the Kishi mobile controller launched in mid-2020, Razer has managed to turn phones into pseudo-Nintendo Switch consoles. It offered a clever design that placed your phone in the middle of two controllers. Not to mention, it was a more comfortable, console-like way to play mobile games, as well as cloud streaming services, like xCloud, Stadia, and more. Now, with the $99 Kishi V2, it looks like Razer’s goal was to get a leg up on a competitor that outperformed it all on its first try: Backbone.
That one-hit wonder of a company popped up after the Kishi launched with an even more formidable mobile controller for iPhone, the $99 Backbone One. It had a simpler, cozier design, more functionality, and an interface that looked just too little like a full-fledged console operating system. It turned gaming on the phone into a more elaborate experience, making the Kishi’s value proposition weaker and a lot less interesting by comparison.
So with the Kishi V2, Razer decided to ditch its first-generation design for something terribly similar to the Backbone One. There’s not much here that Razer can take much credit for. The V2 has a similar minimalist design to the Backbone and the same kind of pull-to-extend bridge mechanism that allows you to place your phone in the split controller setup. The in-game record button is on the left here, along with an options button on the right, and there’s a new button that takes you to – yes – Razer’s own spin on a gaming dashboard called Nexus. You are not required to use it, but it is there.
There are some key advantages that the Kishi V2 has over the Backbone controller. The big one is that the Kishi V2 is made for Android. There’s also an iOS version coming later in 2022. Backbone (frustratingly) hasn’t made a version of its controller with USB-C unless you factor in that subscribers to the paid service can connect it to an Android device with a Lightning to USB-C cable. If you play mobile games with complex control schemes, Razer’s new model has two additional programmable shoulder buttons – one on each side. Those can be reassigned in the Nexus app.
And while Backbone’s design reached its limit with the giant camera bump of the iPhone 13 Pro Max (he offered free 3D-printed adapters to make it work), the Kishi V2 includes adjustable rubber inserts to enhance compatibility with Android phones and their various camera bump sizes – even those in thin cases. The full list of supported phones includes both Razer phones; Samsung Galaxy S8 through the S22; the Galaxy Note 8 through 20; Google Pixel 2 to 6; and “many other Android devices”. It supports up to 11.5mm thick devices, including a camera bump – I was surprised to have to take my Pixel 6 out of its thin (and yellowing) official Google case to make it fit.
Overall, the fit and finish of the Kishi V2 are fine, but the new features – both in the Nexus app and physically present on the controller – are less expansive and polished than what’s available on Backbone’s One.
Inside Nexus, which doesn’t launch more than half of my button-press attempts, you’ll see a bare dashboard that can serve as a game launcher for those you’ve installed. Scrolling through the app reveals game suggestions by genre, indicating either how much worse the game selection on Android is than on iOS, or how poorly Razer manages them. As a game discovery tool, I’d say Nexus might be a little worse than just browsing the Google Play Store, which is already a less than great experience.
In the app you can start a live stream via YouTube or Facebook Live. If you want to take a screenshot or a video, you can do that with a button on the left for those functions. However, there is a dire lack of on-screen feedback or haptic feedback, especially when recording screen or video. For example, after pressing or holding the screenshot button to capture a video, I have no idea if the command is registered until I open my Google Photos library. A simple screen notification (a tiny Cast icon appears in the Android notification toolbar during screen recording, but it’s easy to miss) or a subtle shake could have done the trick. It’s those little things, which Backbone got right two years ago, that make the Kishi V2 frustrating to use.
Razer switched his face buttons to the same kind of click-like, mechanical switches found in his Wolverine V2 controller. And while I liked them in the bigger controller, I don’t like how they feel here more than I expected. The movement is superficial and the click is so subtle and requires so little force that when I press a button during intense gameplay, it doesn’t give enough feedback to let me know if I’ve made a press. It almost reminds me of using one of Apple’s dreaded butterfly keyboard switches with dust in it.
The Kishi V2 offers USB-C pass-through charging, so you can keep your phone charged by plugging a cable into the bottom-right side of the handle, just like the previous version. I suppose I might be in a minority of reviewers to reek of this, but I really wish Razer had built in a 3.5mm jack for wired listening. Unfortunately, audio lag is still one area where Android is inexplicably behind Apple, and it’s usually odd that Razer doesn’t include it, especially since Backbone does.
The Kishi V2 feels like a device made to prove that Razer won’t take it lying in a newcomer’s gaming space. It took a surprisingly long time to release his rebuttal, which is fine. Forget about the Backbone One for a moment, the improved design and thoughtful features of the Kishi V2 make it one of the best plug-in-and-go mobile controllers for Android users. But in its current state, the little that makes the Kishi V2 unique doesn’t overshadow how much better Backbone’s first-generation product still is.
Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge