Launched in mid-2020, Razer succeeded in turning phones into pseudo-Nintendo Switch consoles with the Kishi Mobile Controller. It offered a clever design, with your phone nestled between 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, Razer’s goal seems to have been to get one step ahead of a competitor that did better on the first try: Backbone.
This one-hit company wonder came after the Kishi launched with an even more impressive mobile controller for iPhone, the $99 Backbone One. It featured a simpler, cozier design, more functionality, and a user interface that felt only just like a full-fledged console OS. It made phone gaming a more polished experience, weakening the Kishi’s value proposition by comparison and making it a lot less interesting.
So with the Kishi V2, Razer decided to ditch its first-gen design for something very similar to the Backbone One. There’s not much here that Razer can take much credit for. The V2 shares a similarly minimalist design as the Backbone, and the same sort of pull-to-extend bridge mechanism that allows you to slot your phone into its split-controller arrangement. The in-game capture 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 the Nexus. You don’t have to use it, but it’s there.
There are a few key advantages that the Kishi V2 has over Backbone’s controller. The great thing is that the Kishi V2 is made for Android. There is also an iOS version coming later in 2022. Backbone hasn’t (frustratingly) made a USB-C version of its controller, unless you count subscribers to its paid service using 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. These can be reassigned within the Nexus app.
And while Backbone’s design was pushed to its limits with the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s huge camera bump (it offered free 3D-printed adapters to make it work), the Kishi V2 has adjustable rubber inserts to enhance its compatibility with Android apps. phones and their various camera bump dimensions – even those in thin cases. The full list of supported phones includes both Razer phones; Samsung’s Galaxy S8 through the S22; the Galaxy Note 8 through 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 I had to take my Pixel 6 out of its thin (and yellowing) official Google case to get it to fit.
Overall, the fit and finish of the Kishi V2 is okay, but its new features – both in the Nexus app and on the controller – are less comprehensive and polished than those available on Backbone’s One.
In Nexus, which fails to start more than half of my keypress attempts, you see a barren dashboard that can serve as a game launcher for ones you’ve installed. Scrolling down through the app brings up game suggestions per genre, highlighting either how much worse the game selection is on Android than on iOS, or how bad Razer is at curating them. As a tool for finding games, I’d say that Nexus might be a little inferior to 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 a video, you can do it with a button for these functions on the left. However, there is a consistent lack of on-screen or haptic feedback, particularly during screen or video recordings. For example, after pressing or holding down the screenshot button to capture a video, I have no idea if the command registered until I open my Google Photos library. A simple on-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 would have done the trick. It’s those little things that Backbone got right two years ago that make using the Kishi V2 frustrating.
Razer has switched its face buttons to the same clicking, mechanical switches found in its Wolverine V2 controller. And while I liked them in the larger controller, I don’t like how they feel more than I expected here. Travel is shallow and the click is so subtle and requires so little force that when I press a button during intense gaming there isn’t 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 trapped inside.
The Kishi V2 offers USB-C passthrough 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 suppose I’m among a minority of reviewers who stink about it, but I really wish Razer had included a 3.5mm jack for wired listening. Unfortunately, audio lag is still an area where Android inexplicably lags behind Apple, and it’s mostly just odd that Razer doesn’t include one, especially since Backbone does.
The Kishi V2 feels like a device made to prove that Razer won’t take it away from a newcomer to gaming. It took a surprisingly long time for the rebuttal to come out, which is fine. Forget 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, what little makes the Kishi V2 unique doesn’t overshadow how much better Backbone’s first-gen product still is.
Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge