It could be done, for me this subject relates to the same issue of artistic tunnel vision in games that I’ve been turned off by for a long time. The best illustration I have experience of is TES: Morrowind, in some ways I don’t think that series has measured up to the sense of place since that third game. As much flak as the Gamebryo engine has received it’s built on a powerful meta design, and Morrowind was the best proof of it for me, empowering the free expression of a spacial context. You can see lots of repeated assets if you look for them but that’s superficial and immaterial, material contrast and geographical context is what generates real immersion.
Shadow of the Collosus is a different sort of example but more compelling, the landscape is the uncredited star of the show because without it the rest of the game would be shallow and hollow. There is not that much in the way of details that most people will ever consciously care about or even notice, but subconsciously the real details are everything, they add up to convince you of the meaningful context. And yet that whole world is built from a very limited pool of assets as well.
And since you mention vast empty desserts… well every Panzer Dragoon game has at least on of those already, and they are some of the most atmospheric and evocative places I have ever virtually visited.
Granular visual repetition or even tiling in this sense is not in and of itself a limitation to evoking scope and variety, all the Saturn games are the best proof of that you could ask. The problem is that most of this art is mired in a myopic and self indulgent conceit, and arbitrary standards of granular fidelity or sophistication. The screenshot graphics whore age we are in is positively toxic to the greater artistic expression of the medium, which is why 90% of the creativity is coming from indie devs and other fringe projects.
For a Panzer Dagoon game I think it would work well to split the difference somehow, as Solo said you could be on a dragon most of the time, like with Azel except you could have freedom of travel in a more immediate sense. That’s another lesson of SotC, the common yet idiotic mistake of most games is from some notion that you have to fill up all their spaces with some arbitrary shit to make them real. No, what matters is the space itself, it provides contrast and context for the things that actually matter. SotC has the true conviction of its art, none of it is filler so it doesn’t have anyhing more to prove.
One of the first “open world” games I ever played resided in less than 64 kilobytes, I remember spending an hour looking at a blank, literally featureless horizon for an hour until a single white pixel appeared, which was thrilling, it was a fantastic game. Mercenary.
Art production is never the problem, it’s just so few people remain who acually understand their job of producing art.