I'm finally going into Pillars of Eternity, under advisement. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm an aficionado of the Infinity Engine games. Just last year I started another Baldur's Gate II play through only to drop it when I realised I'd already done everything. Yes, everything. From Kangaxx all the way to the golden pantaloons.
Pillars of Eternity is inspired by the Infinity engine games. It was advertised and plays like a mix of them. It feels like its own spin on them certainly as everything is reminiscent but always slightly different. But does trying to live up to the entire legacy at once cost it in the end?
-The first Infinity Engine game shows its age. What Pillars borrows from this is the world map. Like Baldur's One, it's grid-like with its areas and progress consists of progressing through the areas to reach the other side, opening them up one by one. It has a lot of wilderness areas that are revisited only occasionally. Apart from this it's hard to see any comparison and Pillars undoubtedly stacks up better. Baldur's One was exceeded by its own sequel.
Icewind Dale/Icewind Dale II
The two Icewind Dales fall mostly together due to their shared focus, being dungeon romps of mostly linear progression. Icewind Dale II was a little stronger on story and characters, while Icewind Dale One had it in the atmospheric locations department. Icewind Dale influences are clearly seen. Some of the battle music is a call-back and the expansion The White March takes place in snowy reaches involving abandoned dwarven holds and a remote village struggling to survive against evil armies. However Pillars isn't focused on dungeon romps as much so it inevitably suffers compared against the Icewinds. It simply can't afford to do its dungeons the same justice because they're not the main event. Od Nua I'll get to.
The most character and story driven of the games. Torment has its own sequel planned in Tides of Numenera. In Torment you're not out to save the world, in fact you can't even save yourself. The best you can do is fix what you broke. Pillars does evoke a little of that in its story. It feels like it’s on the right track in terms of quest resolution. There are choices however frequently the choices are just 'Kill this guy' or 'Kill the first guy who asked you to kill this guy'. The companions too never quite reach the character they have in Torment. A personal preference of mine is for the 'Just you and your party' style of the Infinity engine games. The newer style of 'Everyone joins and the extras stay at your base' always feels too gamey to me, as if they're nothing but bundles of stats waiting for you to take them out for a spin.
Baldur's Gate II
The big daddy of the Infinity Engine games and the one most people remember. Baldur's Gate II balanced story, gameplay, characters and freedom into one big bundle. Pillars definitely positions itself as the successor to BGII, trying to do similar things with a Stronghold, an optional massive dungeon and a single main villain carrying out evil plots that involve shady practices by the Gods. Here unfortunately is where Pillars really falls down. Especially where it directly apes BGII. In the villain department, Pillars is lacking. Its main villain just does things, he's never really given a compelling motivation. Od Nua, which is Pillars' answer to Watchers' Keep feels thinly spread, with too many floors and not enough happening. There's many occasions where we're told rather than shown events happening. After the Gilded Vale in the first Act Pillars seems too concerned with opening out into a Baldur's Gate One style, losing the impact of the story. Ultimately Pillars fails on its ambition. Its plot is much more mature compared to Baldur's Gate II but also more abstract. It doesn't feel like a problem that can be solved by just beating the bad guy so when you do there's little sense of closure.
As a comparison against all the Infinity Engine games, Pillars vastly improves on the game system. Infinity relied on 2E D&D, always a shaky proposition for implementation. Its own system updates much of that, while still feeling similar. Wizards and fighters are still there but they feel new and fresh. It's not without its problems, stats are sometimes counter-intuitive and there's little incentives to level outside your class abilities but it's still a step forward.
There's not much to add beyond what I've already said. I could talk at length about minutiae like itemization or the specifics of certain quests but my ultimate feeling is the same. Pillars is a good game but not a great one and that's in part due to living in the shadow of its heritage. It's doubtful a sequel will be able to step out beyond that. The best that can happen is the making of a new game using the same engine, as Infinity was used, in that way Pillars could eventually be itself Baldur's Gate One, the aged parent to a whole family.