Razer’s Kishi V2 is a better and more imperfect controller

With the Kishi Mobile controller launched in mid-2020, Razer succeeded in turning the Phone into a pseudo-Nintendo Switch console. It offered a clever design that sandwiched your phone between 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 was aiming to get a leg up on a competitor that did it all better on its first try: the Backbone.

That one-hit surprise from the company came after Kishi launched with the $99 Backbone One, an even more formidable mobile controller for the iPhone. It has a simpler, comfortable design, more functionality, and an interface that feels shy of a full-blown console operating system. This turned gaming on the phone into a more fleshed-out experience, making the Kishi’s value proposition weaker and far less interesting by comparison.

So, with the Kishi V2, Razer decided to drop its first-gen design for some very Similar to Backbone One. There’s not much here that Razer could take more credit for. The V2 has the same minimalist design as the Backbone and the same pull-to-extend bridge mechanism so you can slot your phone into its split controller arrangement. The in-game capture button is on the left here, as well as an options button on the right, and there’s a new button that takes you — yes — Razer’s own spin on the gaming dashboard called the Nexus. It’s not mandatory that you use it, but it is there.

There are a few key features that the Kishi V2 has over Backbone’s controller. The best part is that Kishi V2 is built for Android. An iOS version is also coming later in 2022. Backbone (disappointingly) hasn’t made a version of its controller with USB-C, unless you consider that customers of its paid service can connect it to an Android device with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable. If you play mobile games with complicated control schemes, Razer’s new model has two additional programmable shoulder buttons—one on each side. They can be remapped within the Nexus app.

Razer Kishi V2

There is a programmable macro key on each side of the controller, which may come in handy.

And while Backbone’s design hit its limits with the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s huge camera bump (it offered a free 3D-printed adapter to make it work), the Kishi V2 featured Android phones and their various camera bump dimensions. Includes adjustable rubber inserts to broaden its compatibility with. – Even in thin cases. The full list of supported phones includes both the Razer Phones; Samsung’s Galaxy S8 through S22; Galaxy Note 8 to 20; Google Pixel 2 to 6; and “many other Android devices.” It supports 11.5mm-thick devices, including a camera bump—to my surprise I had to remove my Pixel 6 from its thin (and yellow) official Google case to make it fit.

Razer Kishi V2

I had to take off my Pixel 6’s thin case to fit it.

Razer Kishi V2

These interchangeable pieces allow more devices to be fitted in the Kishi V2.

Overall, the Kishi V2’s fit and finish are fine, but its new features – both in the Nexus app and physically present on the controller – are less comprehensive and polished than those available on the Backbone One.

Within the Nexus, which fails to launch with more than half my button press attempts, you’ll see a barren dashboard that can serve as the game launcher you have installed. Scrolling down through the app reveals game suggestions per genre, which highlight either how poor the game selection is on Android compared to iOS or how lousy Razer is at curating them. As a game discovery tool, I’d say the Nexus is probably a little worse than browsing the Google Play Store for what is already a less than stellar experience.

Razer’s Nexus app (left) is far less inviting than the Backbone experience.

In the app you can start a livestream via YouTube or Facebook Live. If you want to take a screenshot or video, you can do so with a button dedicated to those tasks on the left. However, there’s a lot of lack of on-screen or haptic feedback, especially with screen or video capture. For example, after pressing the screenshot button or holding it to capture a video, I didn’t know if the command was registered until I opened my Google Photos library. A simple screen notification (a small cast icon appears in the Android notification toolbar during screen recording, but it’s easy to miss) or a subtle vibration could have done the trick. It’s the kind of little stuff that Backbone got into two years ago, which makes the Kishi V2 frustrating to use.

Razer changed its face buttons to the same kind of clicky, mechanical switches found in its Wolverine V2 controller. And while I used to like them in the big controller, I dislike how they feel more here than I expected. The travel is shallow, and the click is so subtle and requires so little power that, if I’m pressing down a button during intense gameplay, it doesn’t provide enough feedback to tell me if I’ve A press has been created. It almost reminds me of using one of Apple’s dreaded butterfly keyboard switches that have dust trapped in it.

Razer Kishi V2

Side profile view of the Backbone One (left) and Kishi V2 (right). The Kishi’s rear trigger provides a bit more travel.

Razer Kishi V2

Same, yet not enough. The Backbone’s grip hangs down a bit, feeling more like a traditional controller.

The Kishi V2 offers USB-C passthrough charging, so you can keep your phone charged, just like the previous version, by plugging the cable into the bottom right of its grip. I guess I may be in the minority of reviewers to stink about this, but I really wish Razer had built in a 3.5mm jack for wired listening. Audio lag, sadly, is still an area where Android is inexplicably behind Apple, and it’s mostly strange for Razer not to include one, especially since Backbone does.

The Kishi V2 feels like a device that was built to prove that Razer won’t let it lie in the gaming space from a newcomer. It took a surprisingly long time to issue a denial, which is fine. Forgetting the Backbone One for a second, the Kishi V2’s superior design and thoughtful features make it one of the best plug-in-and-go mobile controllers for Android users. But in its current state, what makes the Kishi V2 unique doesn’t explain how much better Backbone’s first-gen product still is.

Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge

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