Why Falcom would offer a new symphonic collection for its trademark Ys series as a bonus pack-in only (for their PC game remake, Ys I & II Complete), instead of as a commercial release available to the masses, was a mystery to me at first. After several painful listens to Symphony Ys 21st Century the answer became clear: the album is simply not worth paying for, and even as a freebie would be a disappointment.
Despite the title, Symphony Ys 21st Century is not a live symphonic performance but rather sequenced orchestral music. It's similar in concept to Symphony Ys '95 but far removed from the excellence of that album. The individual instruments - though a bit muffled - aren't that bad in and of themselves. The problem lies in how they meld, or rather clash, with each other. It's apparent from the opening seconds of the first movement, which sound like an electronic attempt at mimicking the tuning section of a live performance - a potentially interesting experiment were it not that the sound persists throughout nearly the entire album. Instruments sound like they're layered on top of each other at random with few if any tweaks to their sound design, the resulting combinations sounding anywhere from slightly off to completely wrong. Even the timing feels off at times , such as when the fourth movement takes seemingly invincible uptempo themes like "Palace of Salmon" and "Termination" and cripples them with random, awkwardly placed bursts of brass.
Poor sound design is, sadly, nothing new to arranged albums for Ys II (the themes of which comprise the entirety of this album). Contributing to the problem in 21st Century is a lack of overall purpose in its four movements. Forget the masterful progression between the themes in Symphony Ys '95 - even the slightly impromptu-sounding medleys in the first Symphony Ys sound entirely natural compared to the arrangements here. In a final, parting insult the arrangers add an awkward sampled choir to the fourth movement, the only use of choir I know of among the plethora of Ys I and II arrangements available and for good reason - Ys' unpretentious melodies hardly need a booming male chorus to vindicate them, much less the sort of cliched, overly dramatic one found here.
On occasions where the arrangers leave the original Ys melodies in their pure, original state or keep the instrumentation at a minimum, the results are passable if not especially impressive. The first couple minutes of the third movement are pretty despite the mushy synth, and it's hard not to get a little excited when the memorable "Ice Ridge of Noltia" theme briefly crops up in the second movement. Then there are the occasional ambitious bits of arrangement that show promise in concept even if the execution doesn't quite cut it, as in the sweeping, almost exotic closing reference to the "To Make the End of Battle" theme at the end of the first movement. However these moments are neither frequent nor spectacular enough to warrant suffering through the mock-orchestral mess that surrounds them, especially when Ys' signature themes can be found in much finer form in any number of other albums. Even hardcore Ys fans are better off disregarding Symphony Ys 21st Century, rather than risk tarnishing their image of favorite series melodies.