So, Sony has finally done what I’d hoped for ages ago and released a controller to make use of their library in some regard. One with the Backbone pedigree, which of course is most famous for its iPhone usage, where the Kishi had been given room to thrive on Android, which I’ll be spending a lot of this review comparing it to. How does it stack up? Fairly well, but I’m not 100% sure it’s US$99 well.
The general experience
After a false start where it came with a QR code to download the app that went to a page that extolled the virtues of the app without actually linking the app, I found it easily enough on Google Play. Starting it up once made it stall, but force stopping and restarting it made it work. From there it was enabling a grand total of 4 things and I was able to kick off Remote Play. So already it felt more convenient than the Kishi app.
That is until I went to the storefront and found that, while it’s certainly fresher (we’ll see how long that lasts), actually getting to where you can get some games is just a wee bit more of a hassle and it puts the Xbox games right in there with Android and PlayStation ones. So, uh, so much for branding. But not only is there an extra input needed to get in; getting OUT needs to be done with the phone’s on-screen back button, which really makes buying anything from Sony a rougher experience than it should be.
And then I plugged the Kishi in just to get a feel for the difference in-hand and didn’t realize I never closed the app when I accidentally started hitting buttons and decided to just unlock my phone to putz around. Kishi was perfectly capable of navigating the Backbone stuff. Including selecting things with all the same buttons.
So, uh, no, this really doesn’t feel all that special or essential all of a sudden.
This isn’t to say being able to Remote Play without hassle is a bad thing and I have a feeling Kishi won’t suffice for that, but what you really have outside of Remote Play is a standard HID controller. I’m sure that’s just because Sony controllers are integrated into Android the same basic way as Microsoft controllers and it’s going to matter as soon as you do something proprietary, but they also don’t have the Sony thumbstick configuration, which, frankly, I am not impressed about.
So, is it rough? Yes, in some ways. And in other ways, it’s refreshingly polished. What I would have paid for it if it weren’t capable of PlayStation Remote Play boils down to the same $50 as I paid for Kishi on sale, but for the Sony experience, well, I’ll say I’d happily pay more than $50, but knowing what I know now, probably not more than $90 with tax. That may or may not come down the more I use it.
Feel in the hands
I will say it’s not as chunky as Kishi and that works to its benefit, because it fits my palms better. That said, it feels flimsier than Kishi and the back doesn’t benefit from the same brilliant engineering. The "backbone" of the controller really does feel like some weird thing sticking out from the back of the phone, with lots of empty space around it, unlike the Kishi’s almost magical illusion of solidity.
It’s also the opposite of the Kishi in how it goes together and comes apart: where Kishi is best to plug it in and wrap the rest around it, the Backbone One really needs you to slide it open with the opposite side of the phone before you can line it up to plug it in. And where the Kishi is easy enough to pull open and grab your phone out of, the Backbone One feels much more like I need to be much more careful with, sliding it open and unplugging the phone from the side in the process, which generally means I’m also mashing buttons and the screen in unfortunate ways.
The phone does feel solid inside it, but really isn’t, more cradled, and the only reason that feels acceptable is because it clamps down hard enough around it that there are really no moving parts presenting any point of failure. In the hand, it does feel like a single object, but not a sturdy one. And I don’t feel like any part of the apparatus could be introduced to the floor without literally everything suffering damage, where Kishi at least feels like it could take one good fall and would save your phone in the process.
The worst thing, really, is the buttons. Which isn’t to say the implementation is 100% awful; the face buttons are okay. Good, even. Good travel distance and comfortable to use, but with one caveat that’s not too distracting: they are somehow both clicky and squishy. The other buttons fare worse. The D-pad is just a hair too stiff, though Kishi’s is a little stiffer than I seemed to recall, just not over the line, and all the auxiliary buttons really feel at the same time stiff, squishy, and like they press too far into their own holes. Which makes it a good thing you basically don’t need them. One of the triggers ends in a kind of unpleasant squishy stop, while the other clicks straight against the body plastic and I don’t know which is worse. The biggest issue, though, is the Xbox stick setup, which, I mean, come on, really? You’re going to make a peripheral for Sony with special allowances and not give the authentic in-hand Sony controller setup? That feels like the biggest betrayal here. The sticks aren’t really all that great, either: fairly small, rather slippery, and zero resistance, making it basically impossible to click them without moving them in a direction. Not that I really like games that use stick click for anything important to begin with, but if you do, these are going to be a problem. The click itself isn’t bad, though.
How it plays
Pretty well, actually. At least well enough bumping around RPGs and the like where you don’t need to use every button on the controller, the touch controls, SixAxis, voice commands, and loving suggestions penned in the finest ink and sealed in wax with your coat of arms.
Unlike Kishi, where I couldn’t be sure how much of what I was experiencing was the controller’s fault, knowing exactly what Sony’s Remote Play is capable of because of Vita, just playing across the house from my own PS4 was shockingly low-latency to the point where I would be comfortable playing something like Mega Man Battle Network if not really The Legend of Dragoon where even a wireless controller necessitates having to re-learn your timing because it’s literally frame-based. Which is kind of just a realization I had here, thinking I never could do anything frame-based my whole life, which gives me a shocking amount of hope for Street Fighter VI, which I bought specifically because of its accessibility features, but have not had the energy to play yet. But something like MMBN where something just plain being responsive enough without necessarily being a QTE with a very narrow window, I feel like the latency is good enough you wouldn’t have a real problem. Somewhere shy of 1⁄10 of a second; there if you’re looking for it, but not intrusive. Obviously, that’s just bumping around the house within Bluetooth range and your experience playing on tour bus Wi-Fi halfway across the country is going to be very different, but I mean credit where credit is due, Sony has always been pretty fantastic about the crap you could get away with, like playing PS1 games on your PS3 via Vita over 3G tethering from your phone.
But the general Remote Play experience is a comfortable one where it’s easy to get lost in the game and feel pretty premium in the moment.
There are a couple benefits here. Like Kishi, no external power is needed and you can play and charge at the same time. It also doesn’t seem to take any power unless you’re actively using it and doesn’t get warm like Kishi does.
Odds and ends
There’s something to be said for presentation and in that regard… I get it. Sony doesn’t want the shapes to have colors anymore. They have intentionally confused this in their recent branding with crap like red triangles and honestly? Screw that. It just feels mean-spirited at this point. So the shapes are the same vague gray they are on the "real" controller, utterly devoid of personality and utterly lacking in much-needed contrast. But there is a nice touch in that when you plug it in, the salmon-colored Backbone button gets a punch of red from an LED hidden behind it and that frankly looks fantastic. Much better than the button itself does when lit from the front, but the real magic of the thing is I get the distinct impression it’s actually a white LED. Anyway, I really like the effect because that happens and you suddenly find yourself in the app and it really just makes the whole thing come alive.
Another bit the storefront has over Kishi’s is sound for moving around, giving it a much more polished, tactile feel to it that adds to the sense of being a premium experience, even if the experience is rather unfortunately clunky when you delve the necessary three levels deep into it.
There’s an equivalent to the Share button on this thing that is functionally distinct from it and in that regard also the reverse of what a good handling might be in that clicking it turns on video recording, while you need to hold it for a solid second to take a screen shot, which means you could very easily miss the moment you’re trying to capture. Cameras take their shot when you click the button. That’s the whole point: the path of least resistance between you seeing something you like and you immortalizing it. Chances are, if you’re capturing video, you either are streaming the whole thing, in which case you choose when that starts, or you have some amount of warning in the various ways cinematics tend to telegraph themselves. I don’t understand how anyone could screw that up!
The biggest issue that’s neither really the feel in the hands nor how it plays is that there’s simply no way to take it anywhere. It doesn’t fit safely in a pocket, absolutely cannot be trusted in a backpack, and is iffy in a purse or fanny pack. I think they might have their own carrying case or something but seriously, that in itself is just inconvenient. The thing relies on your phone for any semblance of solidity and that’s already relying on your phone without a case to do the legwork to make it solid. This really is not an "out and about" sort of device. It is a perfectly serviceable "around the house" device, which is how I planned to use it in the first place, but man alive does that ever defeat the point of being a mobile controller.
Finally, adding back a headphone jack just feels like a flex at this point with them disappearing from phones. With all the manufacturers having saved the tiny amount of production costs by collectively following Apple’s lead because what are you going to do about it, putting a headphone jack straight across from the USB-C port so you can game with whatever headphones you want feels like a rather delicious middle finger to the cell phone industry at large. "If you don’t do this, I will" will always feel satisfying, and it’s honestly the feature I feel actually sets it apart from Kishi functionally.
Would I recommend it? Ultimately, no, not really. Not for the price it’s going for, but that’s the price everything normally goes for and I would certainly pay more for it than I would for the competition if only because it’s immediately useful and has a vast library that literally nothing else can compete with. I don’t dislike it; it’s just down to these things generally pricing out a large segment of who might benefit because they’re all just more expensive than they’re worth. I’m thinking maybe actually, having written this whole review, $70 would be a solid price point for it. Something the cost of a game instead of the cost of a week’s worth of groceries. Which is better than the $50 that Kishi feels worth, all things considered, if only because $20 feels entirely appropriate to add to the asking price to access Remote Play for the wealth of games you already have and can enjoy it with. There’s quite a lot to like and quite a bit more that I’m more neutral on and very little that really detracts from it in a way I’d consider a deal-breaker. I will say it feels more necessary than the Kishi, as much as I prefer certain aspects of the Kishi. Honestly, I haven’t USED the Kishi a whole lot despite liking it. There simply isn’t a whole lot to use it WITH.
This, on the other hand, has plenty to use it with. And, well, both of them, judged strictly as controllers, have their merits, do some things better than the other, do other things not as well, and share a few things that maybe could use a little improvement.
If I had to pick a winner between the two, the Backbone One fairly easily edges out the Kishi around the house with things like the headphone jack and just the general feel and presentation, even if it’s only by maybe not quite 10%, but the Kishi feels much more like it’s capable of leaving the house and going out into the wider world, and is perfectly serviceable provided you have a library for it. In fact, the library is going to be the biggest difference between the two, because if Remote Play evaporates as soon as you’re past the sidewalk, the Backbone One doesn’t offer anything the Kishi doesn’t, and quite possibly less, or at the very least less that’s placed in front of you within easy reach.
But if you’re like me and buy it with the understanding that it’s basically the gaming equivalent of a pair of slippers, it’s a comfortable pair of slippers. Take care of it well and it might last you years.