I completely agree that Hollow Knight’s biggest weakness is in the combat. I found the combat very difficult to get into a good rhythm with, jump attacks and dashes coming out a tiny bit too slow and enemy projectiles seeming to be harder to dodge than I would have thought. I think part of my issue was, amusingly enough, trying to play it like a Souls-like combat game, rather than a fairly straightforward platformer.
This is kind of true for the bosses as well. Trying to fight them like Souls bosses is doomed to frustration, because as far as I now know, many of them follow a basic attack rotation they expect the player to learn and recognise, rather than expecting the player to watch for tells on individual attacks the way you typically do for Souls bosses.
I think that an interesting point of reference is Salt and Sanctuary from a few years ago. S&S tried too hard to be a 2D platformer-with-light-metroidvania-elements version of Dark Souls, to the detriment of its own ideas. Each of its own iterations on the “genre”, such as the use of a skill tree and customisable “bonfires” were matched with what often felt like a superficial adherence to Souls both aesthetically and narratively that made it feel very shallow. In direct contrast to Hollow Knight, Salt and Sanctuary’s combat was the best part of the game, with the art direction sorely lacking.
But for me the strong art direction and excellent audiovisual design is what carries Hollow Knight because those things make the world both unique and compelling enough to drive its heavy focus on exploration. Hallownest makes some homages to Dark Souls, and to fantasy in general, but the setting completely stands alone as its own unique and mysterious place that I actively wanted to inhabit, something I can’t say for Nioh or The Surge. Maybe I’m a sucker for cute bugs.