One of the early great orchestrally arranged game music albums... sans orchestra.
Editor's review by Adam Corn (updated 2022-11-03)
Symphony Ys '95 presents standout themes from the original Ys game (known as Ys Book I) as five symphonic suite arranged medleys. I consider it the best single collection of orchestral music not only for Book I but for the entire series, not to mention one of the greatest examples of orchestral arrangement for game music as a whole - albeit with one substantial caveat.
The caveat is that the orchestra itself is sampled and not a live orchestra. Any seasoned listener of orchestral music will quite easily notice the sampled instrumentation, however among game music efforts I consider it in the better half of the spectrum (especially considering the album's release in 1995), and I expect most game music fans have heard soundtracks with similar sound quality. Chalk it partially up to nostalgia perhaps but I have no trouble enjoying the album immensely regardless of the sampled orchestra.
With the instrumentation out of the way let's move on the arrangement, which is outstanding. "First Movement" is a great place to start, as not only does it progress for its full nineteen minute duration with unfaltering drama, it does so using only a few major themes, the most dominant of which is "Feena". It's normally not a favorite theme of mine, but the somber, steadily building introduction, festive reprise, dramatic reset, and perfect segue into the exhilarating "First Step Towards Wars" make exactly the combination of game music melody and orchestral drama that made me fall in love with this genre.
"Second Movement" and "Third Movement" follow a similar pattern, beginning with subdued, slowly building arrangements of "Palace" and "Beat of Terror", then erupting into brief climaxes with the energetic "Palace of Destruction" and "Holders of Power". "Fourth Movement" is the climax to the album itself, opening with an epic brass salvo before moving into "Tower of the Shadow of Death" and furious orchestral renditions of "The Last Moment of the Dark" and "Final Battle". Then "Fifth Movement" ends the adventure with a surprisingly poignant take on "The Morning Grow", the Baroque-like "Church", and a return to "Feena" in grand, triumphant fashion.
It's truly impressive how arranger Tamiya Terashima takes Yuzo Koshiro's Ys Book I themes - in their original form the synthiest and gamiest of game music - and arranges them so that you could easily believe they were made for orchestra. It's a pity the album lacks the live orchestra to render such perfect arrangements, but for Ys and orchestral game music fans who can get past that sticking point, Symphony Ys '95 absolutely deserves to be heard.