"Fire Emblem: Awakening" is one part soap opera, one part rock-paper-scissors and two parts chess. If that sounds weird, it is, but the result is the best game in a great series.

For the uninitiated, "Fire Emblem" games convert rock-paper-scissors into sword-lance-ax, with swords beating axes, axes beating lances and lances beating swords. The chesslike aspects of the game get a twist, too: The action takes place on a grid, but instead of pawns, rooks, knights and the like, the "pieces" on the board are people, the characters in the game's story. A prince defending his kingdom from a strange new enemy, a magician with amnesia, a love-struck girl who rides a pegasus, and many more. How you arrange these people when facing various combinations of swordsmen, lancemen and axmen is a wonderfully engaging workout for the mind -- and this time around, for the heart as well.

Taking a page from another excellent battle-tactics series, "Disgaea," "Awakening" lets you build relationships among your characters. People placed in adjacent squares, for instance, can help each other out. If you command a character to make an attack, the swordsman one square over may step in with a strike of his own; or, if a vulnerable magician is being attacked, a heavily armed friend may take an arrow for her. The more people fight together, the closer they become in the game's story. Depending on the tactical (and matchmaking) decisions you make, characters can even get married and have kids, who eventually enter the theater of war themselves. As they say, love is a battlefield.

Another new feature in "Awakening" is the option to play in a "casual" mode, which lets you save your game at any time and revive fallen characters after each battle. But "Fire Emblem" vets know the way to go is the "classic" mode, where every move counts and, as in real life, death is permadeath. The higher the stakes, the better the reward.