The first thing to know about "Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy" is that it's essentially an orchestral "best of" compilation album. Though the performances are all new and recorded exclusively for this album, the arrangements are not - virtually every one has been available in one or more previous Final Fantasy soundtrack releases (and most made available again in later ones). Thus the question becomes whether the track selection and new performances are good enough for new fans to choose Distant Worlds over those other albums, and for long-time collectors to supplement them with. My own feelings toward the album are too mixed to respond with a resounding "yes", though in certain circumstances I can certainly see it as a solid purchase.
The album kicks off with "Opening ~ Bombing Mission" from Final Fantasy VII, an arrangement which made its album debut in the concert album More Friends (along with "Swing de Chocobo" and "Opera Maria and Draco"). As the original version was one of the best demonstrations of the masterful sci-fi synth-orchestral fusion in FFVII, not to mention one of the great openings for a soundtrack of any sort, this orchestral arrangement has a lot to live up to, and if put against such high expectations it disappoints. The power in the orchestra is there but the arrangement lacks both the imperative, driving quality and the sci-fi flare of the original, with a couple of additions and modifications that are too conservative for such a progressive OST. For the slightly different quality it possesses the Distant Worlds version is still a good piece, but it pales next to the original.
The other two selections from FFVII are both lifted from the FFVII Reunion Tracks album (the third arrangement from that album, "FFVII Main Theme", can be found on Distant Worlds 2). Though the arrangements are the same, the performances and recording are noticeably different, and in the case of "Aerith's Theme" it's for the better. The tender lead woodwinds are more delicate, the soft backing instrumentals more graceful, and the brief moments of loudness and triumph more refined. As for "One-Winged Angel", I find the performances in the Reunion Tracks version slightly better capture the menace of the piece, though fans who have never heard it for comparison will likely be entirely satisfied with the Distant Worlds version.
Beating out FFVII as the most represented title of the album is Final Fantasy VIII. All four of its arrangements have been taken directly from the 1999 FFVIII arranged album Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec. That particular release is of such high quality that no serious Final Fantasy music fan has reason to be without it, so again the question is how well do the Distant Worlds versions compare. And in the case of the bombastic opening choral piece "Liberi Fatali", more so than in "One-Winged Angel" I find the performances lack the urgency of the previous version, even if the orchestra isn't lacking the least in sheer power. The main battle theme "Don't Be Afraid" and the "Eyes on Me" orchestral arrangement "Love Grows" compare better, though the former can be found on several other albums and the latter is a slightly mundane choice.
The highlight for me is by far FFVIII's "Fisherman's Horizon", not only because of the improved performance and recording, which like "Aerith's Theme" is more intricate and emotive than its previous orchestral release, but because this is the one re-used arrangement to boast some significant and beneficial tweaks. Though the arrangement has always featured a chorus it's taken a hugely expanded role here, in an almost church choir-like form that you'd expect from a 1940s Christmas carol. That may sound like a peculiar choice for a Final Fantasy album but it actually makes for a welcome and tremendously pretty change of pace.
Tracks seven through nine all debuted in the Tokyo 20020220 orchestral concert and can be found in its subsequent double-disc live album. The Distant Worlds recordings for the Final Fantasy I-III "Medley 2002" and Final Fantasy IV's "Theme of Love" sound far better, though for different reasons I consider neither piece a really noteworthy inclusion. In Final Fantasy IX's "Vamo' alla Flamenco" as well, there's no question the orchestral recording bests the one in 20020220. The track-defining solo guitar performance sounds off to me in this version, but for those hearing it in orchestral form for the first time it's not likely to be an issue.
Finally we come the two vocal tracks of the album, which combined take up a good twenty minutes of its running time. "Memoro de la Stono ~ Distant Worlds" hails from the Final Fantasy XI OST and is surprisingly good at its start - more somber than most Final Fantasy pieces and showing Shiro Hamaguchi at his orchestrating best. Unfortunately rather than leaving the arrangement in its original superb state they've gone and cut in the "Distant Worlds" vocal theme, which suffering from poorly written, nature-obsessed English-language lyrics and overly idealistic choral accompaniment totally kills the somber mood of the piece.
And that brings us to the twelve-minute performance of the famous Final Fantasy VI "Opera Maria and Draco", complete with three vocalists to perform the three solo parts. Whereas previous orchestral arrangements of the opera featured vocals in Japanese or Italian, this time around they're in English. Obviously this makes it easier for us English speakers to understand the sung dialog, but with lines like "Maria, Maria, I love you so" and "I am thankful my beloved for your tenderness and grace" that's not necessarily a good thing. Combined with vocal performances that though respectable aren't of the highest caliber and the piece is a little hard to take seriously at times. The other problem lies with the arrangement, which even at twelve minutes feels rushed. Certain sections that really deserve repetition are given a single pass and the climax of the entire production, the "Grand Finale?" segment from the OST, is missing altogether. Granted over the years I've become accustomed to the famous Orchestral Game Concert 4 version, which at 23 minutes is anything but rushed and which does include the Grand Finale segment in very climactic form, so those experiencing the FFVI opera for the first time via the Distant Worlds arrangement may well be more impressed. It certainly does have a few special qualities of its own, but I can't help but think every time I listen to it that it could have been better (and the More Friends recording of the same arrangement is, with better vocal performances and a more patiently rendered performance overall).
Despite my many nitpicks I won't deny that Distant Worlds is a good album. Taken purely on its own merit it's an enjoyable listen, and for those who are new to the Final Fantasy music scene and just want some good orchestral music on the cheap it certainly provides that opportunity. But for fans who already have many of the albums from which these arrangements are compiled, the collection here is mostly redundant and the performances on the whole not so drastically better as to demand a double-dip. My recommendation is to first consider the second Distant Worlds album, which offers a better selection of rarities, or the double-disc "Returning Home" live album, which though not as good a recording is a more thorough compilation with some can't-miss exclusives. Any essential tracks that remain from this first Distant Worlds can just as easily be downloaded individually - with each available not only on the likes of iTunes and Amazon but also in lossless format on Bandcamp, this is one case where fans can afford to be choosy.