It looks like my hammerfighting career has finally come to an end. Though the game remained as dicey as always in the final hours, I managed to discover a build that more or less eliminated all the challenge from the game - a long chain weapon combined with a gem that stole health upon a hit. Combined with a conservative playstyle, even the most difficult levels only required 3-4 reloads at most. As a result, I was able to get everything I wanted out of the game - completed story mode, saw all the weapons (though you can't have them all on a single save because some of them are rewards for taking exclusive side-paths on the main story), beat the first 20 levels of the Arena (after which there are no new rewards or titles), and played Grim mode enough to get the special weapon and more gems than I had any reasonable use for. Overall, it was a good run.
I will probably never return to Hammerfight. Even if I didn't have this massive backlog, I don't think I have anything left to learn. Sure, I never even came close to winning hammerball, but I hated every minute of that minigame, so I don't see it as a great loss. As far as everything else is concerned, though, I'm pretty sure the only things left are more intense versions of what has come before. That's a fine setup for those who are enamored of Hammerfight's gameplay, because it offers near-limitless room for mastery, but I was not quite so enchanted. The chaos was too overwhelming for me, even after 20 hours. If I was ever going to adapt to the game's constant sensory overload, I would have done it by now.
That said, while I've often praised games for taking me outside my comfort zone, once I figured out the heal-and-chain trick, Hammerfight became genuinely enjoyable. I don't think a real fan of the game would want to rely on that combo, seeing as how it dramatically reduces the difficulty without adding any new twist on the tactics of the fights themselves. Combined with a controller that allowed me to lean back in my chair and avoid flailing my mouse arm around, Hammerfight was a fun, if busy casual game. That it was most enjoyable to me when I'd successfully defanged most of its mechanics says something significant either about the game or about me, but I'm not sure it's to either of our benefits to spell it out.