Totally agree with the OP. Though I think the art direction looks quite nice, I can't help but feel emotionally detached from it. It reminds me more of Mario, and that's not Rare. Rare, I think were better than that. I hope Playtonic agrees!
One of my absolute favourite moments from Banjo was in Click Clock Wood, and all the seasonal changes where all the lovely organic texture mapping really helped create this beautiful, natural feel. Aged by seasons and weather. In the pre-hub world just before you entered there was the underground path surrounded by luscious long overgrown grass that you could sneak through to find a cauldron - there was something about running through that as Banjo, to walk out and see the over-active bull hopping about through the grass and the sprawling sights of the woods that just seemed so peaceful and relaxing. Not to mention the wooden areas in the Lair that were achingly beautiful and earthy feeling. They just felt so....'peaceful'. Natural.
I'd be gutted personally if that wasn't improved on. I've never felt attached to any of the modern Mario games as the worlds never feel 'real' or relatable. Just clean (admittedly excellently produced..) wackiness. Nothing that I was ever wow'd ever - not like the moments where you switch between one atmosphere and mood in Gruntilda's lair to another. One minute the buzzing of bees is heard for Click Clock Wood. Barely 30 seconds later and you're hearing the rusty dripping pipes and clanks of an underground decaying sewer. So much character as they merge into each other...you dont get that from Mario. There's so much potential for this to bring platforming back with a real charm and class to its style. Do something that genuinely hasn't been done before. A platformer that looks incredible, feels great and not like a toy box.
I'm not expecting The Witcher levels of detail or anything, naturally, but imagine Yooka and Laylee running through a bunch of autumn leaves and kicking them up as they run, or brushing through beautiful foliage or splashing through sandy beaches. Anything. Imagine a modern version of Bubblegloop Swamp...floating lily pads moving around, creatures buzzing about all picture-esque. It could be great. Pure gleeful abandon.
One can but dream..