With the Kishi mobile controller launched in mid-2020, Razer managed to turn phones into pseudo-Nintendo Switch consoles. It offered a smart 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 seems Razer’s goal was to get a leg up on a competitor that did everything better on its first try: Backbone.
This one-of-a-kind wonder of a company emerged after the Kishi launched with an even more terrific mobile controller for the iPhone, the $99 Backbone One. It featured a simpler and more comfortable design, more features, and an interface that resembled a full-fledged console operating system. This turned gaming on the phone into a more fleshed out experience, making the Kishi’s value proposition weaker and much less attractive in comparison.
So with the Kishi V2, Razer decided to ditch its first-gen design for something. very similar to 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 type of pull-to-extend bridge mechanism to let you slot your phone into its split controller arrangement. The in-game capture button is here on the left side, with an options button on the right, and there’s a new button that takes you to – yes – Razer’s own twist on a gaming dashboard called Nexus. You don’t have to use it, but it’s there.
The Kishi V2 has some key advantages over the Backbone Controller. The big deal is that the Kishi V2 is designed 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 count subscribers to its 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 includes two additional programmable shoulder buttons, one on each side. These can be remapped in the Nexus app.
And while the Backbone design reached its limits with the giant camera bump of the iPhone 13 Pro Max (it offered free 3D-printed adapters to make it work), the Kishi V2 includes adjustable rubber inserts to expand its compatibility with Android phones and their different camera bump dimensions. — even those in slim cases. The full list of supported phones includes the two Razer phones; From the Samsung Galaxy S8 to the S22; the Galaxy Note 8 to 20; Google Pixel 2 to 6; and “many other Android devices”. It supports devices up to 11.5mm thick, including a camera bump. I was surprised that I had to take my Pixel 6 out of its thin (and yellowing) official Google case to fit it.
Overall, the Kishi V2’s fit and finish is decent, but its new features – both in the Nexus app and those physically present on the controller – are less comprehensive and polished than those available on Backbone’s One.
In Nexus, which fails to launch with more than half of my attempts to press a button, you’ll see a barren dashboard that can act as a game launcher for those you have installed. Scrolling through the app reveals game suggestions by genre, highlighting how much worse the game selection is on Android than iOS or how lousy Razer is at organizing them. As a game discovery tool, I’d say Nexus is perhaps a bit worse than just browsing the Google Play Store, which is already a less than stellar experience.
In the app you can start a live broadcast via YouTube or Facebook Live. If you want to take a screenshot or a video, you can do so with a button dedicated to these functions on the left side. However, there is a severe lack of on-screen or haptic feedback, especially with screenshots or video. For example, after pressing or holding the screenshot button to capture a video, I don’t know if the command was saved 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 vibration might have done the trick. It’s the little things like this, which Backbone figured out two years ago, that make the Kishi V2 frustrating to use.
Razer has replaced its face buttons with the same kind of clicky mechanical switches found on its Wolverine V2 controller. And while I liked them in the larger controller, I don’t like how they feel here more than I expected. The stroke is shallow and the click is so subtle and requires so little force that if I press a button during intense gameplay it doesn’t provide enough feedback to let me know if I pressed. It almost reminds me of using one of Apple’s dreaded butterfly keyboard switches with dust caught in it.
The Kishi V2 offers USB-C passthrough charging, so you can keep your phone charged by plugging a cable into the lower right side of its grip, just like the previous version. I guess I might be in the minority of reviewers to stink about this, but I really wish Razer had included a 3.5mm jack for wired listening. Audio lag is, unfortunately, still an area where Android inexplicably lags behind Apple, and it’s mostly odd that Razer doesn’t include it, especially since Backbone does.
The Kishi V2 looks like a device that was designed to prove that Razer won’t take it lying in a newcomer’s gaming space. It took a surprisingly long time to publish his rebuttal, which is good. Forgetting the Backbone One for a second, Kishi V2’s improved design and thoughtful features 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 just how much better Backbone’s first-gen product is.
Photograph by Cameron Faulkner/The Verge