I'm fresh out of having beaten the game with Scholar Ling (customized to be more balanced; I just liked the character look), taking the Way of the Open Palm to its extreme and playing on Master, always using Master (the default) difficulty. The first observation I record must be that I was very surprised the end came so quickly. IGN gave this game a 9.9. I don't know if this helps put it in perspective for everybody, but they gave Resident Evil 4 (of course a totally different game) a 9.8 where I felt that was the better game by far. IGN's stat box also displays the game's press average of 8.9, which I feel is more in line with what the game deserves.
The game's strongest points are the visuals and (most of) the characters inhabiting that world, especially your followers (unfortunately, the most vocal ones tend to be agitating). The game has a great deal of humor, helping to offset the many failed attempts at pathos.
Let me level with you - when I first saw Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox, I ridiculed it (along with another friend) the whole time (of course the guy playing it was sitting there slack-jawed not giving any indication he heard us, so that helped the overall impression). Bioware's attempts at fleshing out the story are once again mixed. There is indeed one rather startling plot twist late in the game, and I'd say that was worth the whole adventure...somewhat. Everything else goes to waste, however - so many unusual ideas and colorful characters go to waste in an incredibly short ending. I honestly feel more thought went into making the hillarious credits voiceovers done by the game characters (check out Master Li's, the last one - "punch a mountain, IN SPACE.")
The game's system doesn't feel right (though I am pleased that it is more or less truly real-time fighting); in this first playthrough I've found that enemy encounters (outside of Lost Spirit encounters in the Necropolis) seem to be strictly tied to story events. I didn't advance much father than level 21, and there are no expansive fields to wander through, beating up anybody who comes your way. The fighting system and camera are clumsy, but servicable - just keep dodging and things will right themselves again. You'll also discover that fights don't necessarily get incredibly harder the farther you advance, which I think is a major issue.
I know it's fun to say "I don't think the designers put much effort into this," but I do get the feeling when it comes to fights, and actually animation in general. Whenever a character is running towards a target, they awkwardly run in bursts and slowly turn, Resident Evil-style, a few degrees and then try again. It is aggravating to have to wait while your character goes through this ridiculous routine just to break open a jar. I'll explain the fighting style a bit more later, but it can be incredibly testing to fight a character that replenishes it health and takes different forms, but there is only one character that really takes this far - the top fighter in the Arena, who has three stages or forms. Then, of course, the characters with supposedly god-like powers simply crumble within seconds when you unleash Jade Golem or even a freaking musket on them. There's also a flying minigame, which is, as far as vertical shooters go, not too bad. There was a pretty awesome boss fight in there, as well, but you face this long before some other, less-intense flying sequences much later on. It doesn't make sense. The hardest stuff is over and done with hours and hours before the final confrontation. Now, assuming you actually follow through and reach these tough fights, and get owned a few times, you'll have to wait through a long loading screen. At the Arena, this means you'll have to wait through TWO long loading screens (one for the interior of the Arena, where you talk to Qui the Promoter - greatest character in the history of ever, by the by - and the second to start the fight) and then wait through the (intentionally, but still annoying) hoarse announcer as well.
Perhaps that's why it feels short - by the time you've struggled through some tough fights ready for some challenge, there really isn't any given. Sure, what you'll see later LOOKS more epic, but it's not, really. Most challenge later on comes from swarms of enemies, and single characters who should be incredible drop dead.
Combat was mostly enjoyable, with lots of jumping around and watching your two attack bars (magic and "focus," used for weapons such as staves or the Outlander's gun). You don't have the chance to just force your way through a battle by the sheer force of the items you carry; your actual skill at manipulating the various fighting styles you are instructed in and have leveled up within strict restraints is what is being measured.
This would be more positive if you didn't end up punching air so often; your character is locked into finishing a three-hit combo when you have hit the buttons fast enough. Second, the restorative style, Spirit Thief, helps you regain your magic meter (it's called Chi), but it's incredibly weak even when pumped up to the max. Well, I skipped out on Direct Damage - that allows you to use magic and do damage with the style, instead of recovering magic; this is a big waste of time as I see it. It's also weak. This is a big part of strategy, and sadly it's incredibly underpowered. You'll have to score combo hits on an enemy dozens of times to recover anything notable in any amount of time, which wastes time and of course opens you up to more damage. There's also a long-range spirit stealing attack here, yes. Of course, this attack doesn't really seem to steal magic at all; frightful enemies seemed to fight much the way as before and this doesn't really have any effect on what they do. Bioware's bungling hands have reduced a classic standby, spiritual vampirism, to a necessary evil. (There may be a life-stealing attack available for those on the "evil" low path, at The Black Leopard School, but it likely is even further marginalized, if indeed it really exists as I think it does.)
The camera can also be frustrating, as is the unwieldly target switching function (the shoulder buttons allow you to switch targets, or - a function I never adopted - drop the lock-on and just swing at anything closeby, hoping to do damage, which is even worse because the best way to fight in any RPG, anyone can tell you, is to focus on eliminating enemies one at a time (plus targeting lets you see the health meter of enemies, gasp!)
Dialogue ranges from great to absolutely inane. Lots of repetition of "important" plot points by the main critter you're helping out. Here's a startling revelation: the Fallout games had a nice helping of conversation recorded by actors, and they didn't force you to pick from among three options that have the exact same effect. Here's the gist of three dialogue options I got late in the game:
You're bad and you abandoned your family
I don't want to talk anymore with you!
Only the last option will give you a different first response, and then the character launches into what they were going to say regardless. Many times the three options are identical, in fact. There are often kinder options and "GRR SMASH ANGRY" options (when I hovered over the latter, Scholar Ling's face contorts into a rather ugly grimace, so I didn't continue down that path) that are really pretty silly. Jade Empire mixes your three base stats - nice how they boiled it down like that - in twos to get your three conversation skills (charm, intuition, and intimidation), but this is pretty darn limited. Feels like I'm playing the whole game with a darn IN 6 character. It's wretched to fail an intuition attempt because the character wasn't going to listen to reason, and because your choice wasn't intuitive anyway.
This next bit is quite strange, but as mentioned before there aren't any power leveling opportunities to speak of. There's a map of the Jade Empire you can see now and then to fly about on, and there are only two destinations for travel on it - Tien's Landing and the Imperial City - though strangely there are many more destinations to be had in the game, that you must go to. This makes sense in a strange way because your Flyer (aircraft) needs landing spots, but it also reinforces the fact that while you go a decent number of places on missions, you don't have very many cities to visit that have a variety of people to deal with (though, as mentioned before, these include many of those tired, foolish "We were so wrong to fight, lettuce make up, plz" sob stories that seem to be Bioware's trademark).
At this point I'm rambling, but I need to mention that there are some discussions of adult themes which are strangely unfitting of the game - for example, there's a reluctant S&M mistress in The Arena who discusses her client! And then I can turn around and talk about dumb things with another character. It doesn't make sense.
Of course, there are many great things to see in the game. Later on you'll have chances to control a few different characters from your party directly; check out The Black Whirlwind's notes and completed quests (from his past; use the Filter button to see them). Hillarious.
One sorta final note: Bioware obviously doesn't think much of our collective intelligence with this fake language they're trying to foist off on us. The first few times you hear it in action you should notice that it's actually the same exact phrase, and there's no correlation between the length of the translated text and the actual voice clip. In other words, what they say really doesn't seem to mean anything.
Overall, this game deserves about a 90, certainly no higher given the shortness and the complete failure to develop anything properly. For goodness' sake, the hardest boss in the game is before you even start the path that leads to the endgame, before you reach the final boss area (for the first time, if that makes sense).
I'd still recommend the game, because there are some really lovable characters here, well, the few they didn't forget about. And it looks pretty good, mostly! Just be aware there's a lot of unnecessary dumbness and missed chances.