The score to Phoenix diverges from the beaten path and attempts to create a moody sci-fi orchestral atmosphere. The elements for the mood and sci-fi feel are present, but the lack of an orchestra keeps them from fulfilling their potential.
Phoenix utilizes sampled orchestral instrumentation, of higher quality than typical game synth but of course not on par with a live orchestra. It would perhaps have been better had it fallen on one of those extremes instead, yes even had it been your run of the mill, not so high quality game synth. Whereas a live orchestra could perform the score with the clarity and subtlety it desperately needs, or where synths might sound very "gamey" but allow the composition to stand out, this sampled orchestral setup tends to blur everything together after only a brief period of listening.
The main problem with the instrumentation is the brass. It doesn't sound tinny and obnoxious as some synth brass can, but still it definitely sounds artificial and floundering; it just doesn't carry the power or dignity that the real thing would, which is a problem because of its very extensive use in the score. The strings and sometimes military-style percussion are rendered better.
Fairly often the score makes use of a sampled choir, which actually comes across pretty well. Beyond that, there is sometimes the use of pure synths. This is the high point of the instrumentation, as the synth often gives a distinct, noticeable edge to the bland orchestrals.
I spend so much time talking about the instrumentation because concerning the composition, I really can't think of too much to say. The compositions seem to strive to create a subdued, barren image of outer space. They succeed in that regard, but the resulting problem is there is little to stimulate the listener emotionally. A slightly haunting mood is present, but again it is subdued, so it never reaches any kind of feeling of true fear or mystery. On occasion the rattling snare drums kick in and the instrumentation picks up for an action interlude, but it is standard action music without memorable themes to stand out. There is a definite B-movie sci-fi feel to the score, which can be cool at first, and I know there are some fairly interesting passages, it's just that they get drowned out by the tedium of the majority and the indistinct instrumentation.
I think Phoenix is an all-or-nothing sort of score, either it achieves just the right formula and leaves you struck with its haunting, moody sci-fi atmosphere, or it misses the mark and leaves you with precious little. With me it missed the mark. Without either a detailed, subtle performance or some more memorable compositions, there's just not enough to qualify it as a desirable listening experience on its own.