S Kishi mobile controller which launched in mid-2020, Razer managed to turn phones into pseudo-Nintendo Switch consoles. It offers a smart design that puts your phone in the middle of two controllers. Not to mention, it was a more convenient, 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 outdo a competitor that did better than its first attempt: the Backbone.
This one-hit wonder of a company comes after Kishi launched with an even more awesome mobile controller for the iPhone, Backbone One for $99. It featured a simpler, cozier design, more functionality, and an interface that seemed a little shy of a full-fledged console operating system. It turned gaming on the phone into a more immersive experience, making Kishi’s value proposition weaker and much less interesting in comparison.
So, with the Kishi V2, Razer decided to ditch its first-generation design for something a lot 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 kind of pull-out bridge mechanism to let you slot your phone into its split controller. The in-game capture button is here on the left side, along with an options button on the right, and there’s a new button that takes you to – yes – Razer’s own spin on the gamepad called the Nexus. You don’t have to use it, but it’s there.
There are some key advantages that the Kishi V2 has over the Backbone controller. The big thing is that Kishi V2 is made for Android. There’s also an iOS version coming later in 2022. Backbone (disappointingly) hasn’t made a USB-C version of its controller, unless you think 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. They can be reassigned in the Nexus app.
And while the Backbone design reached its limit with the giant camera on the iPhone 13 Pro Max (it offers free 3D printed adapters to make it work), the Kishi V2 includes adjustable rubber inserts to extend its compatibility with Android phones and their various camera sizes – even those in thin cases. The full list of supported phones includes both Razer phones; Samsung’s Galaxy S8 to S22; Galaxy Note 8 to 20; Google Pixel 2 to 6; and “many other Android devices.” Supports devices up to 11.5mm thick, including the camera bump — I was surprised I had to remove my Pixel 6 from its thinness (and yellowing) official Google case to make it suitable.
Overall, the fit and finish of the Kishi V2 is good, but its new features—both in the Nexus app and those physically present on the controller—are less comprehensive and polished than what’s available on Backbone’s One.
Within the Nexus, which fails to boot on more than half of my button-press attempts, you’ll see a blank dashboard that can serve as a game launcher for the ones you’ve installed. Scrolling down through the app reveals game suggestions by genre, which either highlights how much worse the game selection is on Android than on iOS, or how crappy Razer is at curating them. As a game discovery tool, I’d say the Nexus is maybe a little worse than just browsing the Google Play Store, which is already a less-than-stellar experience.
In the app, you can start a live stream via YouTube or Facebook Live. If you want to take a screenshot or 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 anywhere, especially when capturing a screen or video. For example, after I press the screenshot button or hold it down 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 vibration might have done the trick. It’s the little things like the ones Backbone got right two years ago that make the Kishi V2 frustrating to use.
Razer switched its face buttons to the same kind of mechanical switches found inside Wolverine V2 Controller. And while I liked them on 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’m pressing a button during heavy gaming, it doesn’t provide enough feedback to let me know if I’ve pressed. It almost reminds me of using one of Apple’s creepy butterfly switches with dust trapped 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 grip, just like the previous version. I guess I might be in the minority of reviewers to take issue with this, but I really wish Razer had built in a 3.5mm jack for wired listening. Audio delay is unfortunately still an area where Android inexplicably lags behind Apple, and it’s especially odd that Razer doesn’t include it, especially since Backbone does.
The Kishi V2 feels like a device that was made to prove that Razer won’t take it lying down in the gaming space from a newcomer. The rebuttal took a surprisingly long time to post, which is fine. Forgetting the Backbone One for a second, 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.
Photo by Cameron Faulkner/The Verge