Fire Emblem has easily been one of the most respected series Nintendo has produced, with several games out in Japan since 1990.  However, we only discovered it most recently here in the U.S., starting with the release of the Game Boy Advance game and eventually ending up on GameCube (Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance) and Nintendo Wii (Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn).  We haven't heard much from the series since then, but that'll be changing when Nintendo, working alongside the development team at Intelligent Systems, will release Fire Emblem: Awakening for the 3DS.  In a surprising change of pace, the game will actually be released in the U.S. first, next month, with a Japanese and European release following in April.

In this new entry, you're in control of an army of spirited heroes, similar to the set-up of previous games, as you face off against a dark dragon that wants to destroy your empire.  This isn't just your typical fire breather either – he's capable of raising armies of the undead to his will.  Leading this group of heroes Is Chrom, the prince of the Holy Kingdom of Ylisse.  You'll also run into other various characters throughout the game, some of whom will evolve with you as you fight.

Like previous games, this entry is all about using turn-based tactics to your advantage.  You'll customize the various characters that you take control of over the course of the game (using a number of robust options to help them match up what you're in the mood for), and then hit the battlefield, moving characters around within grids when it's your turn.  Once you come upon an enemy (which is pretty often, thanks to that dragon's sinister forces), you have the option of setting up for battle, striking at them from the sides (where they're weakest) and keeping some characters in a defensive position.  (Make sure you get some good shielding in place.)  It's all about taking care of your unit and making sure they work cohesively, or you'll fall in combat.

A new feature being introduced with Awakening is StreetPass support.  Once you have a customized character suited for battle, you can actually trade data with other players, and even invite them to join your party outright.  This adds uniqueness to your team, rather than just the standard AI partners. 

Character balance is all about deciding which class and skills you want to take up.  Awakening is going to offer a huge variety with this, with over 40 classes available to choose from, and up to five skills that you can assign with them, depending what your battle rank is.  Obviously, you'll grow stronger in battle as you progress within the game, so you're encouraged to keep fighting, even if the odds aren't entirely in your favor.  No one ever said winning a war was easy.

It's not all about fighting, however.  Like previous Fire Emblem games, you'll have the ability to travel through smaller areas, conversing with various non-playable characters to get information and acquire new items that you can use.  It may be traditional by most role-playing standards, but it's also quite useful when you want to move forward on your quest.

In addition, Awakening will also offer a deep relations system, where you're able to form an emotional bond with members of the opposite sex.  It could even get to the point where you're married and have kids, and your young ones can actually grow up and fight alongside you in battle.  It's all about keeping it in the family.

No doubt that Fire Emblem: Awakening will require you to use strategy to your advantage.  But one thing that you'll want to keep in mind is that you'll be able to expand your party by downloading additional content within the game.  Nintendo is already set to release various returning characters for Awakening, including favorites like Micalah (from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn), Ike and Elincia (from Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance) and many more.  They could easily change the flow in battle, depending how they're used.

Finally, Awakening will no doubt bring a new visual flair to the standard Fire Emblem design, thanks to vivacious 3D imagery that literally brings each world to life.  Though we haven't seen it in action yet with the 3D effect turned on, the animation looks great, and the overworld map you'll work through is quite big, meaning you've got some work cut out for you.  Orchestrated music will also be included, so you really feel like you're taking part in a well-designed turn-based RPG.

It's good to see Fire Emblem back on the grid after spending so many years off, and fans will no doubt want to embrace Awakening when it arrives on store shelves (and digital download) on February 4th.  Let the battle commence!